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Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: Red Dragon Five by John R. Phythyon

Red Dragon Five, by John Phythyon, is a fantasy-thriller mash-up, and the second novel in his Wolf Dasher series. It features the adventures of a James Bond-esque hero named Wolf Dasher, codenamed Shadow Six in Her Majesty's Shadow Service. Set in a world with clear parallels to our own, Wolf Dasher uses special magical abilities and equipment to stop a terrorist organization from acquiring a new doomsday weapon.

I am not an avid reader of the spy thriller. In my youth I read some Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, but the genre is one that I have not spent much time following outside of James Bond movies. However, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a fan of fantasy. The opportunity to read a book which combined both elements together was intriguing. How could I pass it up?

The book begins by introducing us to Wolf Dasher while he infiltrates a secret base operated by the elven terrorist organization, The Sons of Frey. As an Asatru, the invoking of one of the Norse deities with connection to a terrorist organization raised an eyebrow, but I'm not about to get bent out of shape just because of something small like. We discover that Wolf Dasher is something called a Shadow, a human who has been imbued with magical abilities by something called The Rift, which can apparently communicate with those touched by its energies, offering them advice in rare situations. Wolf's powers include the ability to be completely unseen while remaining still in the shadows, seeing magical auras, and a form of postcognition. Useful traits for a secret agent to have, to be certain! We also learn that he works for a nation called Urland, which is a sworn enemy of another nation called Phrygia, which is quickly revealed to be a fantasy version of communist Russia. Urland's corresponding nation is, presumably, Great Britain, though one character – an amble-bellied general with a generally bad disposition and inability to speak in an inside voice – reminded me of a more American stereotype, leading me to believe that Urland is Great Britain and the United States combined.

Wolf quickly discovers that the Director of Operations for the Sons of Frey, Hassam Teargarden, has arrived at the base. With a description for the elf including dark skin, and the name "Hassam," it quickly seemed obvious that elves correlate to this world's Middle Eastern population.

This is the first issue that I had with Red Dragon Five. I don't mind the idea of elves representing a particular human nationality – actually, any departure from Tolkien elves is welcome, so far as I am concerned – but mixing Middle Eastern names with western fantasy names and cultures is a big "no, no" in my book. Middle Eastern elves are interesting. Hell, they're damn near unique as far as I can think of. Don't water them down with elements outside that culture – revel in that uniqueness! Mr. Phythyon did an excellent job of portraying the dissension and sectarian conflict rampant in the Middle East, making it a shame that elves with the names like Teargarden, Spellbinder, and Honeyflower had to spoil the flavor. Further, the religious sects at the heart of the conflict in the book continue this trend. The major religion seems to worship a prophet of God named Frey (clearly an Islamic reference, spoiled by the use of a Norse god for the prophet). Frey had multiple followers, and two of those followers' teachings and interpretations of Frey's words created the sects which are at the heart of the religious conflict in Red Dragon Five, the Shendali and the Freyalans.

The first scene in which I read about the religious persecution of the Shendali citizens of Alfar by Freyalan militias was excellent. It immediately evoked memories of news reports of sectarian violence in the Middle East. This gave the elves an immediate flavor and accessibility that I loved. That flavor was diminished when I discovered that the Freyalans were following the teachings of Freya (another Norse deity). Too many spices can ruin a great dish, and the end result was that the elven nation of Alfar felt… flat. Ultimately I saw it as a traditional western fantasy setting, revoking the uniqueness that I got in the earlier parts of the book (which returned when Wolf visits Jifan, a Shendali-controlled elvish nation).

I don't think any multi-national spy thriller would be complete without political interaction, and Red Dragon Five gives you plenty of that. There is a clear effort to demonstrate how the sectarian conflicts between the Shendali and Freyalans are tearing apart the nation of Alfar and rendering the government helpless. Sadly, much of the political action is heavily foreshadowed, leaving little surprise for how the government's attempts to contain the violence backfire and create more problems for Alfar. The government officials seem overly heavy-handed while trying to appear subtle, like someone trying to steal from your pocket while showing off for a filming crew. There are a few missed opportunities to highlight certain personalities. There is a rousing speech about patriotism by an official described as moderate and likely to go with the majority on any vote, but we never actually see examples of this meek behavior from him to truly demonstrate how shocking and effective his taking a firm stand on an issue truly is. Another character seems like a complete tool in the pocket of one of the sects, but in a private scene with a religious agitator shows a different side altogether which gives the character far more depth than shown in the previous scenes. Sadly, that character makes no appearance at all after this, so we never get to see more of this development. It seems that the entire purpose of the scene is to show how inept the government officials are by giving the sect leader the perfect opportunity to cause more trouble in Alfar.

Generally speaking, the scenes featuring Wolf Dasher are excellent, and follow a very clear spy thriller formula: locate the enemy base, infiltrate the enemy ranks, and then get in over your head. The scenes are quite enjoyable, but there were a few things that left me scratching my head. Dasher, as I mentioned earlier, is clearly a sort of fantasy James Bond, and he is described as having field experience that newer Shadows would greatly benefit from, yet he makes puzzling mistakes that seem like rookie errors, and there is an emphasis on his worry of being discovered that seems unlike what a veteran secret agent would feel – particularly one who apparently was involved in other deep cover operations in the past. Despite these inconsistencies, the action in the scenes is quite good, with Wolf not being overly-dependant on his Shadow-powers.

No James Bond spy thriller would be complete without cool gadgets, and the world of Wolf Dasher has them. From a ring that makes a human appear to be an elf, a torq which allows you to breathe water temporarily, to a flying carpet, and more. Magic is the general alternative to "high tech" in the world of Wolf Dasher. Enchantments allow a ship to act as a submarine, or for small one-man boats to act as jet skis, which really helps the spy thriller aspect of the setting. Elves are described as being far superior to humans in terms of magical ability, and many of the terrorists use wands to turn themselves into suicide bombers, enhancing the Middle Eastern feel for the sectarian violence. One thing that would have been nice was for humans to be slightly more technologically advanced, allowing them to work on merging their technology with elven magic, but that's probably more of a personal wish than a necessity. The magic items as spy gadgets work, but in a way it reduces what I love about spy gadgets: common everyday items which turn out to be unique tools. A watch that shoots a laser has become cliché, but it's a neat tool that makes sense for a secret agent to have; a magic wand that does the same just seems like something that would stand out if you were searched.

Overall, Red Dragon Five was a fun book. It presented a unique flavor of spy thriller and fantasy mixed together, marred somewhat by populating a Middle Eastern setting with western fantasy elements. The plot can be a bit predictable in places, especially to those who follow the spy thriller formula. This is the second novel in the Wolf Dasher series, proceeded by the novel, State of Grace, and a short story, The Darkline Protocol. I was able to follow the storyline and the setting without previous exposure to the other books, which is excellent. Most importantly, despite what I felt were some flaws in the book, when I finished it I was interested in reading State of Grace and continuing with the series, a triumph for any book. If you're new to fantasy and wanting to dip your toes in the genre, Red Dragon Five can make an excellent jumping-off point thanks to its merging with the spy thriller genre and familiar setting. Red Dragon Five and other Wolf Dasher stories are currently available in paperback and Kindle editions from

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Character Overview Part Two - Krayna Shaddarsson

This is part two of a new series of articles containing character overviews. To see the previous character overview, or to read the excerpt from Laeryk's Proving in that article, click here.

Krayna Shaddarsson

Nation of Birth: Allandaral
Gender: Female
Eye Color: Green
Hair Color: Auburn
House: Commoner from the town of Kaerodan
Religion: Nominally Alluman, mostly Atheist
Gift: Unidentified
Physical Characteristics: Krayna is tall for a woman from Allandaral, standing at about 5'-10". She is considered to be one of the beauties of her home town.
Personality Traits: Krayna has been raised in two different worlds. Her aunt has taught Krayna the ways of medicine and herbalism, and Krayna will frequently react and respond to those in need of her skills, despite her desire to avoid that life. Krayna's uncle taught her the ways of shadow and thievery, and Krayna often finds herself tempted to commit crimes without every thinking of alternatives. Krayna tries to plan things out, but her plans often gloss over details due to an overconfidence in her own skills. While she has been trained to fight with knives, she has never been forced to kill anyone before, and is hesitant to start now. Krayna prefers the night, finding comfort and solace in the shadows. She sees the dilapidation of her hometown and recognizes that its time is limited, and wants out before the town takes her down with it.
Personality Quirks: Krayna finds the romantic notions of the girls she grew up silly. She believes that most of the women in Kaerodan spend their time spreading their legs for whatever man wants to mount them, and scorns them for it. Krayna hates children, and would prefer almost any fate other than giving birth. She hates her aunt and reveres her uncle.

Krayna has never known her father. She doesn't know whether he left before she was born or when she was too young to remember him, but either way her earliest years were spent with her mother. Krayna's mother and aunt were healers and medicine women operating in the town of Kaerodan in Allandaral. After Krayna's mother died when she was nine, Krayna was taken in by her aunt Alayna and uncle Raeridin at her uncle's assistance. Alayna harbored a belief that Krayna was somehow responsible for the wasting illness that claimed her sister's life and wanted nothing to do with her niece, but finally relented after Raeridin's insistence and began training Krayna in herbalism. Raeridin also began training Krayna at the same time, but his lessons involved skulking and burglary. Periodically, Raeridin would make Krayna undertake various tests to prove her mastery of the skills he was teaching her, rewarding her with a piece of equipment after each test.

Krayna's world was shattered when Alayna and Raeridin had a falling out. Alayna had discovered Raeridin's secret life as a thief and banished him from her household. Krayna was tending to a friend suffering from a malady called bonebreak fever at the time and so missed the fight, but she encountered Raeridin as he was leaving Kaerodan. Raeridin gave Krayna a final gift, a pair of daggers he'd had made for her, and pledged to return or her after he had joined the shadowy organization called the Shaddar Haakan.

Krayna is still waiting for her uncle's return after three years. A recent opportunity has presented itself to her, and Krayna believes that one last job will allow her to escape her aunt and Kaerodan forever, and set off in search for her uncle...

Laeryk's Proving - Chapter Two

The bitter taste of the sleeping potion was foul, but the aftertaste was even worse. Krayna tried to ignore it as she lay in her bed, head facing the wrong way so she could better listen through her door. Her aunt had been giving her regular doses of the sleeping potions ever since catching Krayna trying to sneak out of the house when she was younger. Over the years, Krayna had developed a tolerance to the potions. As long as she had a few guanaro beans to chew on, Krayna could overcome any sleeping potion, and her aunt kept a large supply of the beans to brew coffees with.

Alayna Shaddarsson, Krayna's aunt, was easily the best medicine woman in Kaerodan — not that she had any competition. Kaerodan was practically a crumbling ruin these days. Thirty years ago it had been a bustling city, receiving frequent visits from merchants eager to trade with the Wyvern Knights who stopped to rest at the Kaerodan Waystation, one of the fortresses that housed the Wyvern Knights when they were in foreign lands, but the knights had stopped coming after the Waystation had been built at Ballen's Bridge. The merchants had followed suit shortly after. A few still passed through to purchase casks of Kaerodan's famous beer, but not enough to sustain the city's commerce. Kaerodan had been practically abandoned, its population shrinking until it was no larger than a small town. The remaining inhabitants had pulled back to the center of the abandoned city, allowing the outskirts to fall to ruin and disrepair, even scavenging materials from the old buildings when necessary. Kaerodan had become a shambling corpse of its former self, unaware that it had already died.

Krayna hated the town, and she hated the way its people put on airs, as if they still mattered to the larger world. The wealthiest man in Kaerodan was a banished disgrace from his family. The handsomest man in Kaerodan had been treated for so many sexual diseases it was a wonder that any woman would touch him, let alone actually allow him to impregnate them, and yet they did. The only reason Alayna, a genius when it came to herbs and medicines, stayed was because Krayna's mother, Alayna's sister, was buried nearby.

Krayna listened to the creak of floorboards outside of her room. Alayna was still up, brewing potions. Master Kolbi had ordered a tonic to help with his wife's aches during her pregnancy, and Alayna was probably finishing the tonic so that it could be delivered in the morning. Alayna had a soft spot for pregnant women — strange, considering she detested children as much as Krayna. Tiny, filthy hands always grabbing at everything within reach, putting everything into their mouths... Krayna shivered, despite herself. As far as she was concerned, children were little more than trophies awarded for spending too much time being groped in back alleys and forgetting to keep your legs closed. Given the choice between children or lice... she'd probably pick the lice.

Krayna couldn't do anything until her aunt had gone to bed. Alayna's ears were too sharp, and she'd purposefully avoided fixing any floorboards to prevent Krayna from sneaking around. It hadn't worked, of course. Krayna's uncle had trained her too well, but Krayna let her aunt have her delusions.

Her uncle Raeridin had been the one who had shown Krayna that Kaerodan was rotting from within. Raeridin had insisted that Krayna come to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother had died nine years ago, which had caused a fight between Alayna and Raeridin. For some reason, Alayna blamed her sister's death on Krayna. Krayna had never figured out how a nine year old girl could have had anything to do with her own mother's death. Raeridin had overridden his wife's objections though, and insisted that Alayna take Krayna as her apprentice.

If not for her uncle, Krayna's life would have been a miserable one. She was an apt pupil, and had learned enough of her aunt's trade that Krayna could have struck out on her own if she wanted, and likely would have made a tidy living. Krayna hated the work, though she had to admit that being a medicine woman did make an excellent cover story for her real passion.

Raeridin had been a thief, the greatest in Kaerodan — the old city, not the crumbling town. He'd discovered Krayna's natural agility, grace, and cunning, and had been delighted to have someone to pass his tricks down to. Breaking into people's homes, making off with their valuables, and then walking among them the next day, with no one the wiser — that was what thrilled her. She felt no guilt for what she did. If her uncle hadn't taken her in, Krayna would surely have become a begging urchin on the street, with everyone in Kaerodan looking down on her. Still, she wasn't utterly heartless. She tried to keep her targets limited to people who could afford the theft, and even then she had avoided taking anything with heavy sentimental value, more because of the risk of someone else identifying it than anything else. Krayna was far more practical than sentimental.

She heard her aunt's door close. Finally! It was getting close to midnight, and Krayna wanted as much time as possible for her scheme. If she pulled this job off, she would finally have enough goods to fence in Ballen's Bridge and strike out on her own, following in her uncle's footsteps. Maybe she'd even find Raeridin, and reunite with him away from Alayna.

Alayna had discovered Raeridin's secret profession three years ago. She'd been furious. Both of them had forbidden Krayna from hearing the argument, and had sent Krayna to watch over her best friend Winna, who had been suffering from bone ache fever. Had it been anyone else, Krayna would have sneaked back, but she hadn't been able to ignore the sight of Winna in such pain. She'd heard the screaming start as soon as she'd left for Winna's house, but she hadn't realized just how badly the fight would turn out. She'd encountered Raeridin on her way back home, and he'd told Krayna that he was leaving. She'd cried herself to sleep each night for the rest of the week. Alayna had been a bitch and said nothing. To this day, Alayna still hadn't said a word to Krayna about Raeridin.

Remembering her uncle brought a tear to her eye, but Krayna wiped it away. After tonight, she wouldn't have to put up with Alayna any more. That thought brought a smile to her face.

She moved carefully to the hidden space in the floor of her closet and retrieved her gear. Each piece of equipment had been a reward from her uncle for passing one of his many tests. A kit with a set of lock picks and probes, small mirrors, and a listening cone. A rope made from a silky material, strong and fire retardant. Three hooks to go with the rope. A small medical kit with common first aid items, bandages, ointments, alcohol, and the like. Another kit containing a nastier set of herbs: poisons, most of them designed to render people unconscious, and a few antidotes as well, in case someone guarded their treasures with a poison needle or contact poison. She even had a few vials that could be used as grenades, filling a room with noxious fumes. Her uncle had been as much a genius with poisons as Alayna was with medicines, and he'd passed that knowledge to Krayna.

Krayna checked over the equipment quickly, but with an eye for detail. She didn't have much time, but she couldn't risk anything going wrong with her gear while she was on the job. Satisfied that everything was in proper repair and that nothing was missing, she set them aside and returned to her hiding spot. She pulled out several neatly-folded bags and sacks, each a mottled gray and black color. She'd never needed to use all of them at once, but tonight's job might actually call for just that. Setting those aside, she pulled out the outfit she called her "blacks." They were actually they same mottled blacks and grays as her sacks and pouches, but she liked the term better than "thief costume."

The blacks were formfitting, and more than a little scandalous, but the idea was for people not to notice her, not to protect her modesty. They were light enough that she could wear them under a dress without betraying anything, assuming the dress was long enough to cover all of her legs. She was as tall as most men, much of it leg, and had needed to alter the blacks as she'd grown older, but her excellent manual dexterity had proven useful for more than just picking locks and lifting purses. Needle work wasn't that hard, and Krayna was a competent seamstress, if not an elegant one. She pulled the blacks on, trousers first and then shirt. A few hair clips bound her long auburn hair close to her head and neck. Finally, she pulled on the soft-soled boots and gloves, both with rough grips to help aid her climbing. She belted on the rest of her gear, and checked herself over in the mirror to be certain everything was where it should be. Satisfied, she pulled the last of her treasures from their hiding place.

They were a pair of daggers with black hilts. While the rest of Krayna's equipment was utilitarian in appearance, these daggers were exquisite. Their blades were sharpened on both edges, and the tips curved ever so slightly. They were perfectly balanced, good for either throwing or for use in hand to hand combat. Krayna had trained to fight with a dagger in each hand, and their balance made them perfect for that style of combat. The daggers were each inscribed with the same message, "Shadows Hide You," the same words Raeridin had said as a farewell to Krayna the day he'd left, when he'd given her the daggers.

Krayna understood the value of sentimental objects.

As she carefully placed the daggers in their boot sheathes, Krayna couldn't help but remember that last meeting with her uncle. He'd explained some of the argument he'd had with Alayna, but Krayna had known him well enough to tell that he was still keeping something back. Then he'd told Krayna that he was leaving, before Alayna exposed him to the town. He was going first to Ballen's Bridge, and from there he would begin his search to make contact with the Shaddar Haakan, the Shadow's Guild, a criminal organization that loosely controlled the majority of crime in every nation. He'd promised to come back for Krayna after he joined them, and help her also become a member, freeing Krayna from both her aunt and from Kaerodan. Three years had been a long time to wait, and she couldn't wait on Raeridin any longer. After tonight, she wouldn't have to.

Krayna pulled her door open as gently as possible, and peeked out to make sure Alayna actually had gone 
to bed. The fire had been damped down to where it was safe to leave it unattended. Alayna had placed a kettle over the fire, and Krayna could smell the concoction brewing within. Perfect. Everything was set up exactly the way Alayna preferred when she went to bed with medicines still brewing.

Krayna moved quickly, but lightly, barely touching the floor so she could avoid the creaky boards. When she reached the front door she opened it carefully — Alayna didn't oil it and used the creak in place of a bell like everyone else.

Once outside she darted for the nearest shadow, feeling filled with exhilaration. She was most alive here in the dark, safe from everything. Her eyes cut through the darkness, the starlight as bright as the lanterns along the roads.

One last job and she would be free. The night rejoiced with her as she raced through the streets, cloaked in shadow.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Character Overview Part One - Laeryk Thorn

As part of a new series of articles for the blog, I will be releasing a character overview of several of the characters in the Saga of Thorns, including physical descriptions, character histories, and personalities. Some of these posts may also accompany sample chapters from either Laeryk's Proving or the upcoming Gavain's Proving novella.

Laeryk Thorn

Nation of Birth: Valdaran
Gender: Male
Eye Color: Mixed; left eye is a sky-blue, while the right eye is an almost-black green.
Hair Color: Blonde
House: Thorn, but until recently Laeryk was a ward of House Frostwind.
Religion: Church of Alluman
Gift: Unidentified, but Laeryk shows signs of either the Saritar or Vordanitar Gifts.
Physical Characteristics: Laeyrk is taller than most Valdarans, making him tower over people from other nationalities. He stands at roughly 6'-10" and his height makes him seem very thin, though most of his body is covered in lean muscle. Laeryk's gaze has been described as both cold and intense, but those who know him best often remark about a simmering anger in his gaze. He never really smiles; at best, he smirks. A life of hardship has molded Laeryk's features so that he regularly appears grim and serious. "Mirth" and "Joy" are strangers on his face.
Personality Traits: Laeryk is a man of extremes. His dedication toward accomplishing his goals - becoming a Wyvern Knight and restoring House Thorn to what it was when Laeryk's father was alive - is absolute. When pursuing his goals, Laeryk allows nothing to stop him and refuses to accept defeat. At the same time, Laeryk's constant exposure to the cruel realities of life have left a deep-seated anger and fury inside of him, and Laeryk must constantly war with his own temper to avoid making a mistake that can be used against him. This requires a measure of self-control that most find unsettling, leaving Laeryk with almost no friends - not that Laeryk has much time for associations such as friendship. What friends Laeryk does have, he treasures and is quick to stand up for them, especially if they are getting in their own way. Laeryk's sense of humor can be described as cruel, picking up on personality quirks and weaknesses of others and turning them into sources of humor. Rarely is this meant maliciously, but for the target of Laeryk's humor it is often difficult to see Laeryk's jokes as anything short of cruel barbs. Needless to say, earning Laeryk's hatred makes a dangerous enemy who is controlled enough to bide his time until the moment is right to have his revenge, and clever enough to analyze his foe's weaknesses while he waits.
Quirks: Laeryk cannot abide the taste of mead or other alcohols, possibly as a result of seeing what drinking has done to his uncle. Laeryk prefers to exercise shirtless, enjoying the feeling of the crisp Valdaran wind on his bare skin. Laeryk's intelligence and seemingly effortless skill can make him overconfident, causing him to make assumptions that aren't always accurate. Though Laeryk is a follower of the Church of Alluman, he is not a very religious person, rarely praying; Laeryk would prefer to succeed on his own merits rather than from the benevolence of a higher power. Laeryk abhors the thought of fate and destiny, as it would require him to give up control of his own life.

Laeryk's mother died in childbirth, leaving only his father Derris Thorn to raise him. Derris was a Wyvern Knight of Steel Wing, but did his best to be present in his son's life, despite the duties his position required. Laeryk grew up in Thorn Manor, and had very few friends thanks to his father's protectiveness. So protective was Derris Thorn, he even forbade anyone to speak of Laeryk's mother to him, not even her name, and he covered any portraits or likenesses of her, leaving her a complete tabula rasa in Laeryk's life. While he lacked much family by blood, his father's best friends Penevyr Silverheart and Garon Wyvernclaw, the Wing Lord of Steel Wing visited regularly. Laeryk even took to referring to the Wing Lord as his uncle.

Derris Thorn was killed while away on a mission when Laeryk was eight. Laeryk was surprised to discover that his "uncle" Garon was not adopting him, instead sending Laeryk to live with his remaining blood relatives, his Aunt Dianay and her husband, Belok Frostwind, another knight of Steel Wing. Both his aunt and uncle resented Laeryk from the moment he was sent to live with him, presenting a hostility that perplexed the young boy. Things grew worse when Garon forced Belok to take Laeryk as his squire.

Belok trained Laeryk, but constantly derided and disparaged his charge, despite Laeryk's natural talent and penchant for understanding things very quickly. While it was clear to observers that Laeryk had considerable talent and was one of the best squires in the entire Wing, Belok constantly treated him as a failure, sometimes going so far as to sabotage his nephew. Laeryk watched as the Wyvern Knights of Steel Wing, his father's comrades and friends, turned their back on him, even Penevyr and the Wing Lord Garon. Realizing that he was on his own, the child buried his pain deep inside, growing cold to the world around him, and used the anger and fury he felt to drive him.

Laeryk quickly became rivals with two other squires, Arngrim Icehart and Gavain Whiterose. Gavain was the squire Laeryk despised the most, as he had been taken as a squire by Penevyr, a position that Laeryk was certain would have been his had Derris Thorn still lived. The three competed for everything constantly looking for ways to show the others up. This rivalry served to hone all three squires' skills even faster than their fellows, and Laeryk most of all.

One day there was an impromptu archery tournament. Laeryk was poised to win against both Arngrim and Gavain, when he accidentally missed his shot, causing Gavain to win. Belok observed the tournament and struck his nephew for his "incompetence" in front of Gavain, who was taken aback by Belok's casual mistreatment of Laeryk. When he demanded answers, Laeryk coldly explained that had Belok not been forced to take Laeryk as a squire, he would likely have been offered Gavain instead, and been offered gifts of wealth from House Whiterose. Gavain was horrified to learn that he was in any way responsible for Belok's mistreatment of Laeryk, but Laeryk refused to allow Gavain to take the blame, placing it squarely on his uncle's shoulders.

A Valdaran guardsman, Lutano, had observed the exchange between Laeryk and his uncle, and had noticed the dangerous look in Laeryk's eyes. Deciding that the boy needed a mentor, Lutano offered to train Laeryk to fight with a sword - real training, not the token training offered to most Wyvern Knights who favored crossbows while fighting on the backs of their wyverns. Laeryk accepted the offer, but discovered that he needed to find a sparring partner. He asked Gavain to be his sparring partner, claiming that learning swordplay would set Gavain apart from the copious amount of knights in House Whiterose, all vying to be more impressive than the last. In reality, Laeryk wanted the opportunity to trounce Gavain on the practice field. Despite his intentions, the secret morning sparring sessions quickly developed a friendship between the two squires. After years of feeling abandoned and alone, Laeryk had found himself a friend - one that he would kill for, if necessary.

Despite friendship and skill, Laeryk has come to realize that he is quickly running out of time. If he is unable to convince Belok to offer him a Proving before he turns twenty-one, Laeryk will be cast out from the ranks of the Wyvern Knights forever. But when told that he is to accompany his uncle and half of Steel Wing on a mission to the city-state of Haddar, Laeryk begins to believe that perhaps he will have the chance to show that he deserves a Proving before it is too late...

Laeryk's Proving - Chapter One

A bead of sweat trickled down Laeryk's neck, running down his spine. He swallowed hard, and took a deep, steadying breath. Another. Around him, Laeryk could feel the shifting discomfort of the militia members. These were men trained to defend their homes and flocks from wild animals. They were not meant to fight other men, except perhaps to break up brawls in the streets and taverns. Laeryk had more military training than half these men put together, maybe more than all of them. Any Wyvern Knight did.

Of course, Laeryk Thorn was only a squire, even though he was already older than most squires were when they were Chosen by their wyverns to become knights. Too old. The deadline of his twenty-first birthday was fast approaching, only a few short months away. The thought of never becoming a Wyvern Knight just because he had turned twenty-one without earning a Proving was terrifying. More terrifying than even the approaching bandits.

This would be Laeryk's first battle. He couldn't decide if he was more nervous than excited. He had waited most of his life for this moment, this chance to prove his uncle's words to be nothing but lies. He took a quick stock of his equipment. His armor was hardened leather lined with metal studs, with steel bracers covering his forearms, meant to be used in the place of a shield. His longbow was a comfortable weight in his hand, metal shod at the ends and center of the wood. His quiver hung at his waist, angled so that he could quickly draw a new arrow from it. He keenly missed his sword. Most Wyvern Knights had no use for swords; they were useless while the knights rode their wyverns, flying high above where they might strike any foe. Instead, Wyvern Knights had crossbows mounted onto their right gauntlets, raining deadly quarrels down upon their foes. While he was an excellent archer, Laeryk loved swords. Matching blades with an opponent felt more personal, more a true test of skill than shooting them full of arrows.

Forget the sword, Laeryk chided himself. It's gone. Belok saw to that.

A spark of anger came to life in Laeyrk as he remembered what his uncle had done, but Laeryk pushed the anger down as he always did, feeding it to the raging inferno of fury that blazed inside of him. One day that inferno would become uncontrollable and lash out at someone, but today was not that day. Going into his first fight angry was only going to get Laeryk killed.

Laeryk looked at the approaching bandits. They were a ragtag group, brazenly walking toward the gathered militia force. Little wonder, Laeryk thought. They've faced these men before, and always set them to running.

Once, the fields of outside of the city-state of Hadar had been golden with wheat, green with grass, and white with sheep. Now it smelled of smoke, roast mutton, and death. The Nadyssian bandits were ruthless, bloodthirsty men, who left nothing behind for those they pillaged. They were more organized than they had been in the past, several bands of bandits joining together to form a larger horde. Hadar had lacked the troops to defend both the city and its fields but its alliance with Valdaran had allowed it to call on the northern kingdom for aid, and Valdaran had responded by dispatching half of the Wyvern Knights making up Steel Wing to defend Hadar and wipe out the bandits. Today, Wing Lord Garon, Wing Lord of Steel Wing, planned to complete their mission and deliver a death blow to this bandit horde that would scatter it so far and wide it would never dare threaten Hadar again.

Laeryk should have been with the Wyvern Knights now, participating from the back of his uncle's wyvern. Belok had sneered at the thought, loudly declaring in front of everyone that Laeryk was too incompetent to shoot from the back of a wyvern, and that the only reason Belok had even brought his worthless squire with him was because Wing Lord Garon had demanded an evaluation of Laeryk in the field.

It had been humiliating, and infuriating, and the rage Belok's words had ignited in Laeryk was already burning with the rest of the inferno inside of him. Taking Laeryk's sword had been a further insult, and one that might cost the squire his life. Considering how much Laeryk's uncle and aunt had always hated him, Laeryk's death on the battlefield might have been their plan all along.

Stop it! You aren't going to die today, Laeryk snapped at himself.

"Get ready!" Laeryk called to the militia. They had nominated Laeryk as their commander for this battle when they'd learned that the squire would stand with them during the battle. The militia's original commander had been killed in an earlier bandit raid. The men tensed in anticipation, though Laeryk couldn't tell if they were ready to stand their ground or turn tail and flee. Laeryk nocked an arrow and pulled back the string, selecting the bandit he would shoot at first. Some of the militia men did the same, but there were too few men with bows in the militia. The rest readied their spears, axes, and whatever other weaponry they'd had. One man had only brought out a hoe from his fields.

The bandits seemed unperturbed by this show of force from the militia, and why not? They had routed these same men before. What could possibly make the difference this time?

Laeryk waited for them to get closer. They were well within range of his arrow now, but he couldn't set the militia to charging too soon, or the bowmen would be useless. Just a little closer...

"Now!" Laeryk roared, letting the arrow slip through his fingers. It flew straight and true, killing the bandit Laeryk had aimed at before the man had even known that he was in danger. The other archers were just loosing their shots when Laeryk had already readied his second shot. The rest of the militia surged forward as a second bandit died from one of Laeryk's arrows, and they met with the bandit force as Laeryk's third shot killed yet another of the raiders.

Laeryk paused to survey the battle. They didn't need to hold the bandits for long. Wing Lord Garon had never counted on the militia to defeat the bandits, only to draw the bulk of their horde out into the open. At first it looked as though the Wing Lord's plan had worked, but Laeryk's eyes narrowed as he considered the battlefield. The reports they'd heard of the bandits' numbers were far vaster than the force on the field today. Truthfully, the horde should have washed over the militia and Laeryk without pause, but this force was only half the size they'd estimated...

So where were the other bandits?

A snarl drew his attention, and Laeryk stared in horror at the approaching force of bandits riding creatures that Laeryk had only ever heard stories of in Valdaran. Nadyssian clawfiends had the basic form of a mountain lion, but were two or three times the size, with brown scales where fur should have been, and half-foot long claws on each foot. Their heads were more avian than feline, with eyes placed on either side of the head, and a sharp beak hiding their long teeth. The stories some of the older Wyvern Knights told about clawfiends said that a single Clawfiend could rip a man apart in seconds, and their scales were said to be as good as any armor ever made by man.

There were at least ten of the clawfiends and their riders. Most of the militia had little better than boiled leather armor. The clawfiends would rip them apart as if they were nude on the field that day, if Laeryk didn't do something.

Acting on instinct, Laeryk nocked an arrow and aimed at the nearest clawfiend, drawing a new arrow automatically as he released the first one, and firing on the Clawfiend's rider. Both arrows struck their targets. The bandit fell from his saddle as he clutched at the arrow that had punctured his throat. The clawfiend looked at the arrow curiously as it bounced off of its scaled hide. It turned its attention to Laeryk and gave a menacing shriek.

Wonderful. I have its attention.

Laeryk's eyes widened as two more clawfiends answered the shriek and turned to face him. Their riders tried to turn their fierce mounts around, but the clawfiends ignored them and stalked toward Laeryk, who nocked an arrow but didn't bother aiming. He needed to think this through. The clawfiends were armored, fast, and they outnumbered Laeryk, but he could probably get off two arrows before they got within range to pounce on Laeryk. Then they would turn him into a small pile of gore and viscera.

Damn you to the Hells, uncle! If you wanted me dead, couldn't you have just drowned me when I was younger?

Laeryk felt the surge of anger again and tried to feed it the fire inside of him as he had before, but the inferno had grown too large for Laeryk to contain it anymore. Memories of his uncle's lies about Laeryk, and the cold hatefulness of Laeryk's aunt Dianay boiled to the surface. They'd always resented the need to take care of Laeryk since his father's death. It hadn't been Laeryk's fault his father had died; Derris Thorn had been killed while fighting bandit forces when Laeryk was eight. Laeryk hadn't forced Belok to take him as a squire, denying Belok the option of squires whose Houses would pay lucrative stipends to support their scions' training. All Laeryk had ever wanted was to follow his father's footsteps and become a Wyvern Knight, and to restore House Thorn to the former glory it had held before his father's death.

He'd done his best to please his uncle. He was the best squire Steel Wing had seen since Wing Lord Garon himself. He was a better archer than most of the full knights. He had taken the shoddy, cheap equipment Belok had bought and restored it to a respectable, if not pretty, condition. He had cared for Belok's wyvern, had attended to every chore his aunt and uncle had set, every additional demand and rule they'd placed on him, and for what?

All Belok and Dianay had ever done was call Laeryk worthless and undeserving of Derris Thorn's legacy. They'd sullied Laeryk's name with every knight in Steel Wing, and doubtless knights in the other four Wings as well. He'd suffered through it all in silence, never protesting, never acting out in rage against his oppressors, bottling it all up inside himself instead.

That fury exploded inside of Laeryk now, and the inferno surged forth through his veins, filling him with heat and power. The world seemed to slow down, or perhaps Laeryk simply moved faster. Regardless, pulled the string back and let his arrow fly, readying and shooting a second and then a third before he even had time to think of what he was doing. The arrows seemed to shimmer with heat as they flew. The first imbedded itself into the eye of one clawfiend, piercing all the way to its brain. It fell over, crushing its rider beneath it. The second arrow pierced the soft roof of another clawfiend's mouth as it let out a shriek, killing that clawfiend as well. The third arrow found the soft spot between the riderless clawfiend's torso and foreleg, causing it to buckle forward, but failing to stop its advance.

Understanding that he would never get another shot off in time, Laeryk instead held his bow like a club and readied himself to meet the clawfiend's charge. Even with its injury, the clawfiend should have been moving far too quickly for Laeryk to have a hope of stopping it before he was torn to pieces, but instead it seemed as if Laeryk had all the time in the world. Just as the clawfiend was almost upon him, Laeryk swung his bow, connecting with the side of the clawfiend's head. The bow shattered from the force of the blow and the clawfiend was tossed to the side. It quickly recovered and advanced at Laeryk again. Laeryk threw the ruined bow to the side and roared in challenge at the clawfiend. The sound of Laeryk's battle cry hit the reptilian beast like a solid force, throwing it to the side.

A rush of wind and a hail of quarrels announced the arrival of Steel Wing. Bandits fell by the score to the Wyvern Knights' crossbows, and the wyverns swooped down to attack the clawfiends with poisoned stingers and claws.

"Militia, fall back!" Laeryk yelled, and by some miracle the men of the militia heard Laeryk. They quickly pulled back so that the Wyvern Knights wouldn't need to worry about friendly casualties as they rained a barrage of missiles upon the bandits.

Issuing the command had distracted Laeryk, and he failed to notice that the clawfiend had recovered until it was almost too late. He watched helplessly as it charged, that feeling of invincible fury suddenly gone, leaving only a cold exhaustion that seeped into Laeryk's bones. Unarmed and too tired to dodge, Laeryk gritted his teeth as the clawfiend raced toward him, murder in its eyes.

A wyvern's stinger easily penetrated through the clawfiend's scales, pumping the paralytic venom into the clawfiend's bloodstream. The clawfiend's body went rigid, and the wyvern pulled its stinger out and snatched the clawfiend in its talons. The wyvern flew high into the sky and released the clawfiend. It landed hard on the ground, and Laeryk could hear its bones shatter. It did not rise.

He held up a hand in thanks and thought he spotted a flash of white teeth as Gavain Whiterose, Laeryk's best and only friend, saluted him back. Gavain signaled his wyvern, and they returned to the main body of the fray.

A hoarse scream drew Laeryk's attention, and he watched as one of the clawfiend riders ran toward him, sword raised above his head to cut Laeryk down. Though he was exhausted, Laeryk's training took over, and he parried the strike with his gauntlet, falling to one knee from the force of the blow. The bandit swung wildly at Laeryk, clearly in a frenzy, and Laeryk was hard pressed to block them all. He waited for an opening, and when the bandit rose his sword of his head for another fierce blow, Laeryk lept forward, clipping the bandit below the knees and forcing him to the ground. Laeryk pulled himself on top of the bandit and punched the Nadyssian in the face, but the Nadyssian managed to throw Laeryk off, leaving Laeryk prone. The bandit sneered as he readied a thrust that would take Laeryk's life when a quarrel exploded from the bandit's throat and he collapsed with a gurgle.

Laeryk's eyes rose to watch as his uncle set his wyvern down and dismounted. Sir Belok Frostwind staggered toward his nephew, and Laeryk wrinkled his nose at the foul stench of beer and ale that wafted from Belok.

Incredible! He's still drunk from last night! Laeryk thought in amazement. He should have expected it, given his uncle's condition, but right before a battle...

Then again, how badly would his hands have shook without the alcohol, Laeryk wondered. There was no way to know what, or who, Belok might have shot if he hadn't been drunk.

"Always needing me to do everything for you," Belok sneered. There was no trace of a slur in Belok's speech. "I don't know why you ever thought you could be one of us, if a simple bandit could best you!"
I," Laeryk started, but stopped as Belok cut him off.

"Shut up, boy! Don't you dare argue with me!" Belok's bulk shook with rage as he towered over his nephew. 
"Where's your bow? Where's your sword? What sort of man, squire or not, goes into a battle without a damned weapon?"

Laeryk's eyes flickered to the ruined remnant of his bow, then over to the sword sheathed at Belok's waist. Laeryk's sword. The anger burned in Laeryk's eyes, but he tried not to let it show. His reputation was bad enough; he didn't need to let his temper ruin it any further.

"What in the Hells do you think you're doing, Belok?" demanded a voice from behind Laeryk.

Laeryk tilted his head so that he could watch the Wing Lord approach. Wing Lord Garon Wyvernclaw had changed little from the days of Laeryk's childhood when Laeryk had called him "Uncle Garon" and ridden on the Wing Lord's shoulders during his frequent visits to Thorn Manor. The Wing Lord had been squired to Laeryk's grandfather at the same time that Derris Thorn had been squired to the head of House Silverheart. They had formed a friendship that had made them as close as brothers. After Derris Thorn's death, however, the Wing Lord had all but vanished from Laeryk's life, abandoning him to the cruel whims of his aunt and uncle. Laeryk had never learned why the Wing Lord had turned his back on his best friend's son.

"I think I am disciplining my squire," Belok snarled, obviously outraged at being challenged. "I believe that I am well within my right to do so, my lord."

If the Wing Lord was bothered by the condescension in those last words of Belok's, he didn't show it. "Disciplining is something to be done back at the Waystation, not on the field of battle."

"Battle? This massacre is long since over," Belok snorted.

"Still, we have other things to attend to. There are wounded, and I want to question some of these bandits to see if we took out the leaders, or perhaps confirm whether Markov had anything to do with these attacks."

"It is my right to train my squire however and whenever I see fit!" Belok screamed in fury. "Would you deny our oldest traditions? You may command Steel Wing but even you must obey the traditions set down by the first Wyvern Knights!"

"I'm not telling you how to train your squire," the Wing Lord snapped, "I'm giving you a direct command, on the field of battle, and you had damned well better follow it!"

Both men drew themselves up to their full heights. Valdarans were taller than any of the men from the southern kingdoms. Wing Lord Garon was short for a Valdaran, but stood at a height equal to the tallest of the Hadaran militia men. Belok towered over the Wing Lord by a full head and a half. He was easily one of the tallest men in Steel Wing. Only Laeryk was taller, standing just over seven feet tall.

Sensing that he needed to do something to stop this confrontation, Laeryk rose and knelt before his uncle contritely. "My thanks, Sir Belok, for saving my life from that bandit," Laeryk said, his eyes cast to the ground. "I lost my bow fighting the clawfiend. If you hadn't stopped the bandit when you did —"

"Fighting the clawfiend?" Belok sneered disbelievingly. "How can you even attempt such lies in front of the Wing Lord? If you had fought a clawfiend, you'd be dead." Belok shook his head in mock disappointment. "That is just like you, Thorn. Always lying to cover up what a failure you are, and —"

Rage filled Laeryk again and a snarl escaped his lips before he comes suppress it. He rose and met his uncle's eyes, sky-blue like most Valdarans. "I am not lying," he hissed. "I killed two clawfiends, held off a third, and managed to kill multiple bandits before the clawfiends arrived. Check the fletching on the arrows if you don't believe me."

His eyes bored into his uncle's, and Belok was forced to look away. Not many could meet Laeryk's gaze for long. His mismatched eyes quickly disconcerted most who tried. His left eye was the same sky-blue as his father's had been, but Laeryk's right eye was a green so dark you could hardly tell the iris and the pupil apart. Gavain had once said that when Laeryk was angry, his dark green eye seemed to swallow all the light in the room. Laeryk had always supposed that he must have gotten his green eye from his mother. Derris Thorn's eyes had been as blue as any Valdaran, but Laeryk had no idea what color his mother's eyes were. She had died giving birth to him, and Laeryk's father had ordered that any portraits of Laeryk's mother be covered and that no one should ever speak to Laeryk about his mother, so as to spare the boy any pain from her absence. Laeryk didn't even know what his mother's name had been.

"He's right," called Sir Jarrot as he knelt beside the clawfiend Laeryk had shot in the eye. "Both arrows have Valdaran fletching."

Wing Lord Garon whistled appreciatively. "Two clawfiends," he said in wonder. "Nearly a third. I don't know of any Wyvern Knight who can say that they killed a single clawfiend on foot, let alone as a squire."

"The boy was lucky," Belok snorted.

"Alluman grant me that same sort of luck in every battle," the Wing Lord said. He rubbed his bearded chin as he considered Laeryk thoughtfully. "Could you imagine what sort of reaction a squire would receive if they passed a Proving by killing two clawfiends?"

A Proving! Laeryk's heart raced, his anger melting away. The Proving was the final test a Wyvern Knight presented to his squire before sending the squire to the wyverns to see if he would be Chosen by one of them. It was almost a foregone conclusion that any squire who passed his Proving would be Chosen by the wyverns. The few squires who hadn't been Chosen had met gruesome ends at the talons of the wyverns, and their Provings had always been revealed to have been earned through bribes or other coercion, rather than merit.

Belok had been denying Laeryk his Proving for years, always saying that Laeryk wasn't ready, or was too incompetent, or some other excuse. Laeryk had hoped that this mission would afford him the opportunity to show Wing Lord Garon and the rest of Steel Wing that he deserved a Proving, leaving Belok no avenue to deny his squire any longer — but he had never dreamed the Wing Lord would suggest that the battle itself be considered Laeryk's Proving!

"It would be an impressive feat," Belok admitted, "but Laeryk isn't ready for his Proving. I still say his kills were luck, not skill, and he's done nothing to prove to me that the Wyverns won't rend him limb from limb if he goes to them."

"If every squire had to do better than killing two clawfiends, lucky or no, to earn their Provings, we'd have no Wyvern Knights at all," Wing Lord Garon said with a chuckle. "You should reconsider your opinion of your squire." Belok opened his mouth to protest, but the Wing Lord stopped him with a glower. "I'm not telling you what to do," he snapped, "only offering my opinion."

Laeryk's heart sank. The Wing Lord's opinion wasn't worth much against Belok's hatred for Laeryk. Without another word, the Wing Lord left them to tend to the cleanup of the battlefield. Laeryk waited for his uncle to say something.

"Are you finally getting a backbone, Thorn?" Belok laughed cruelly. "Not much good it will do you now," he whispered to his nephew so that Sir Jarrot, still watching the both of them, would not hear. "What do you have, three more months? I don't think I've ever cared enough to bother remembering your birthday. Doesn't matter. I want you to listen carefully to me. I'll die before I give you a Proving. Doesn't matter what you do."

Laeryk glared at his uncle, but said nothing, fighting to keep his fury in check. The temptation to attack his uncle was tremendous, but some cold, rational part of Laeryk's brain forced him to hold himself back, knowing that Belok was goading him so that Laeryk would look bad in front of Sir Jarrot.

"For losing your bow on the battlefield, and your sword before the battle even started, you'll tend to every wyvern in the Wing every time we stop, until we're back in Valdaran. Do you understand?"

Laeryk nodded, aware that Jarrot was watching him carefully. Belok smirked at Laeryk before turning away from him to stagger back to his own wyvern, no doubt in search of a flask in his saddlebags. Laeryk watched his uncle walk away. The inferno of his rage burned as hot as ever once again.

He thinks he's won, but I won't stop. I'll never give up. Before we return to Valdaran, I will find a way to force Belok to give me my Proving! The fires of Laeryk's rage roared in approval at the thought. Nothing will stop me, he swore to those fires. Nothing!

[To read more of Laeryk's Proving, read the sample provided on this page, or purchase the book from one of the retailers listed above.]

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Laeryk's Proving is Available on Amazon and Sony Reader!

Two more retailers have been added to the list of places where you can purchase Laeryk's Proving directly for the eBook device of your choice! Now Amazon Kindle users and Sony Reader users can purchase through their device's online stores rather than needing to go to Smashwords and then port the book to their device. Hopefully this added convenience will allow more readers the opportunity to check out Laeryk's Proving.

Kindle users will also discover that their copies of Laeryk's Proving can be lent to family and friends for up to fourteen days, though the book will be unavailable to the original user for that same period of time.

Monday, April 1, 2013

End of March Madness Sale

March Madness Sale Ends

The March madness sale for Laeryk's Proving is now over (as is my bracket). I would like to thank everyone who took advantage of the coupon to purchase my book for free at Smashwords. I was delighted to be able to share my hard work with all of you. Many thanks also to those of you who shared my posts about the sale on Google+ and Facebook. It is nice to have such wonderful friends/followers/readers. I am still looking over the response to the coupon to determine how successful it was, but I would love any feedback people might have regarding the coupon. In the future I hope to offer sales that will reflect on my other retailers' websites. If anyone has ideas for new sales themes, I would be happy to hear them in the comments section.


I am still looking for reviews for Laeryk's Proving. Whether you would like to review the book for your personal blog, a review website, or just post a review on the book's sales page for the retailer where you purchased the book, I'd love to hear everyone's feedback. Please post your reviews and feedback, and leave a comment to let me know where to find them!

If anyone happens to know of someone who either reviews fantasy books on a regular basis, or wants to get started going so, feel free to send them here to the blog so they can get in touch with me. I would be more than happy to preview a review copy for them.

New Retailers

New retailer information will be coming soon! I will probably have a new post tomorrow to reflect the updated retailer list. Keep an eye out!