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The Dragon Mistress opening chapter

Fri, 1st September 2017

As I did with THE CURSED MAN, I thought I would post the opening chapter of THE DRAGON MISTRESS. You can read it below.

* * *

Chapter 1

"Start with her." The head slaver pointed at Jocelyn Brandywine.

The slaver's name was Sev. Alysha remembered him now. He was the man who had come to Waterhall, her home village, some days earlier, seeking refuge. He had claimed at the time that he had been attacked on the road, and had lost his wagon, horse, goods, and all his money. He just needed somewhere to stay for the night, and recover. The residents of Waterhall had welcomed him in with open arms. What a terrible thing to happen, to strip a man of his livelihood, they had said. Stay as long as you need, Meri Appleseed, the settlement's elected leader, had offered. Sev had gratefully accepted Waterhall's charity, and had pressed on a couple of days later. But not after snooping around and seeing what was available to loot, Alysha now realised.

The man to whom Sev had spoken scowled, and looked Joycelyn up and down. "The old woman first?" he asked, with a look of disdain. "Are you mad?"

Alysha had heard him referred to as Jake on the way up here, as she and the others had sat in the cage upon the wagon, wondering what fate lay in store for them.

Sev gestured behind him, to where two other men were crouched down, examining the ground there. "She's skinny enough to fit down the hole," he said, waving a finger up and down Jocelyn.

"And fragile enough that she'll break every bone in her body when she slips off the rope and hits the bottom," Jake said. "Even from three feet up. Gods knows what you were thinking when you picked her."

The men began to argue for a time, the two others who had been examining the hole coming back over to voice their opinions. One was a very large man, who seemingly went by the nickname of Bull. The name of fourth man escaped Alysha; Ferth, she thought she had heard the others refer to him as. He hadn't said much recently. The slavers pointed at the collection of unwilling captives and back to the hole as they argued, their voices steadily rising as their tempers began to flare.

Alysha met the eyes of her fellow residents. Including herself, the slavers had brought five of them to the top of Sommer's Hill. None were doing a good job of masking their fear at being here, and all were casting glances in the direction of the nearby trees, as well as the cage upon the wagon that had been used to transport them up here.

Alysha's attention strayed down the hill, to the land beyond. In the fading light, she could just about make out Waterhall. Or what was left of it, at any rate. A column of smoke drifted up from the village. Of the settlement itself, tiny pinpricks of red and yellow, the embers of the flames that had consumed many of the houses and other buildings, could be seen. Far brighter earlier on, they would have been doused now by those who had been left behind; the very young, the very old, and the infirm, whom the slavers had deemed to be without value (with the exception of Jocelyn, of course). Alysha thought it a good thing that the air was still tonight. A heavy wind would have fanned the flames and made things much worse, reducing the entire village to ash. At least if she were to somehow escape and make her way back home, there might be something worth salvaging. Something upon which to rebuild ...

"Hey, hey, hey!" Sev shouted. "You'd best not be thinking of running." The slavers stopped arguing then, turning their attention back to the group of captives.

"If they even think of it, we'll run them down, and gut them where they stand," Jake said.

"Why do they keep look at the woods like that?" Bull wanted to know.

"There are huglers up here," Hue, boy a good few years younger than Alysha, said. He looked again at the line of trees.

Alysha agreed. She swore that she had seen movement there earlier, a glimpse of white, skeletal hands between the many tree trunks. They had withdrawn swiftly, the things waiting, biding their time.

Jake hooted with laughter. "Monsters?" You're telling me you're scared of monsters?"

"Tell you what," Sev said to his captives, "you do anything but stand where you are, and you'll find yourself with something much worse and very real to be scared of." He gestured to his three accomplices as he spoke.

"They're real," Hue pressed, eyes darting to the tree line. "They live in the woods and come out at night, when it's dark. They don't like the daylight." He looked up into the night sky. "Not so fond of the moons, either."

"No such damn thing," Sev said. "Just stupid stories made up to scare children into not playing far from home, and to come in when it gets dark. Now," he said to Jake, "get the old woman."

"She'll fall and die," Jake said.

"She's the test subject."

"It will be a waste of good rope."

Sev and Jake started to argue once more, Bull and the other man adding their opinions, though this time being ignored. It seemed to Alysha that while Sev was in charge, Jake was his right-hand man. They argued just as much as they agreed. From what she had gathered on the way up, Jake had applauded his leader's decision to hit Waterhall and take all the able-bodied prisoner, to sell as slaves. He had been less enthusiastic about Sev's idea to take a detour up Sommer's Hill before taking the prisoners off to sell.

"She's scared half to death. She probably won't even be able to hold on to the rope."

"We'll tie it tight."

"And how's she supposed to get back up again?"

Alysha looked at Jocelyn. She wasn't as old and frail as the men were making out her to be. She was in her late seventies, and quite capable of looking after herself. Still, Alysha doubted she would have the strength or stamina to handle the descent, never mind the return journey.

"Send the boy," Jake said. They meant Hue.

"His shoulders are too wide, you can see that," Bull said.

They weren't wrong. Hue might be skinny, and a little small for his age, but he had wide shoulders. His parents always thought that was a sign he would end up growing quite big and stocky in the end.

"Feet first, and we can hold his arms out, so he slides in easier."

"And how does he get back out afterwards, genius?"

"I'll do it," Alysha said.

A silence descended. All eyes turned towards the young woman. Alysha kept her head held high, as both the slavers and her fellow prisoners stared at her. All held a look of surprise on their faces. The way Alysha saw things, she was being practical - the arguing could go on all night, and the noise was sure to attract the huglers lurking nearby. The moons might be full tonight, but she could see dense cloud rolling in, threatening to obscure them. That would grant the monsters the opportunity to leave the sanctuary of the trees, and attack.

"Well, looks we've got a volunteer," Sev announced.

"Alysha, no!" Jocelyn said.

"It's all right, Jocelyn," Alysha said. "I'm not scared."

"Good to hear," Sev said.

"I don't want to put her in, Sev," Jake said. "Didn't want to bring her up here in the first place. Look at her, she's a pretty one. Got a nice face, one that will attract a number of buyers."

"Nice skin, too, good colour," Bull added. "Buyers love that caramel look; that and pearl white are always in demand. We could get good money for her, Sev. Let's put one of the others down first, in case something happens. We don't want to damage that body of hers."

Alysha's hands tightened by her sides as the men discussed her like she was a piece of meat, being sold at auction. She kept her mouth shut, however. Now was not the time to get angry. It seemed that while Jake wasn't keen on coming up here, neither did he want to miss out on any of the spoils that were to be had.

Sev pointed to the ground at his feet. "Listen Jake, you didn't have to come up here, but I'll tell you this - what's down there could be worth more than the value of her face. It's worth the risk."

Jake folded his arms. "If this ends with her becoming worth nothing, I want you to reimburse me my share of her worth. She'd make a good trophy wife."

"Fine, fine," Sev said. The head slaver strode over to the prisoner group, shoving them aside as he grabbed Alysha by the wrist, and yanking her forward. The man must've been a good three inches shorter than Alysha herself, though far stronger than he appeared.

"Besides," Sev said to the three others, "we put her down there, she comes up with the goods, we take those, and sell her, too. Even if she takes some damage, we'll still gain more from the treasure."

He led Alysha over to the hole. It made sense to her now why the slavers had chosen the most lean of Waterhall's residents. The mouth of hole appeared quite narrow and tight. None of the slavers would fit down there, that was for sure. Looking at it now, Alysha wasn't altogether certain she would, either. A child would fit with ease, but a child might not be able to handle themselves down there, or follow instructions properly. They could become trapped, or start to panic, and waste the slavers' time.

Sev gestured to Ferth, who was clutching the end of a great coil of thick rope, to come over. "All right," he said to Alysha, "this is what's going to happen - we're going to tie this rope around you, and lower you down there."

"How far is down is it?" Alysha asked. It wasn't as though Sommer's Hill was small, and if this hole led all the way to the base, they would need a healthy amount of rope.

Sev shrugged. "Two, maybe three hundred meters. We have more rope if we need it," he added, glancing back in the direction of the wagon.

"And what am I looking for down there? Treasure?"

"Yes, treasure." The head slaver rummaged through his clothes, extracting a coin from within, and showing it to the young woman. "Gold, just like this. Legend has it that many years ago, a bunch of treasure hunters and explorers hid all their wealth down there. Mounds and mounds of it. Gold, silver, platinum, precious stones, jewellery, you name it. Enough to buy an entire kingdom."

"And what makes you so sure it's still there?" Alysha asked.

"That's what you're here to help us find out," Jake said.

Alysha had never heard of such a legend, despite living so close to the hill. She was familiar with a number of stories of adventure, but nothing quite like this. It sounded absurd that such a grand fortune could exist beneath their feet, and go completely undiscovered for all this time, but Sev seemed quite convinced that it was here, and was willing to stop at nothing to get it. She moved to take the coin from the man, for a better look, but he snatched it back.

"That is just one coin," Sev said. "Down there," he pointed to the hole, almost salivating at the prospect, "is where we'll find the rest of it."

"Is this the only way in?" Alysha asked.

"The only other way is sealed," Jake said. "Someone, or something, has blocked the north entrance with a great big boulder. From the inside," he added with a grin, showing brilliant white teeth.

"Any idea what?" Alysha wanted to know.

"Probably one of your fabled monsters," Bull said. He looked to the nearby trees, but saw nothing. He snorted.

"Right," Sev said. "Stop your yapping. We don't have all night." He stepped aside, to allow for Ferth to tie the rope around Alysha. He knotted it tight, forcing the air from her lungs, and making it difficult for her to breathe. She resisted the urge to ask the man to loosen it a little. It might be uncomfortable, but at least it was secure.

"You see how this is done?" Ferth asked. "You put it around like this, loop it through here, then again through here, to create a knot. Another loop like this, and a final knot here. Got it?"

"Got it," Alysha said.

"Make sure you do. You're not getting out if you can't tie a knot secure enough to hold you. No skin off my nose if you don't, I've got plenty of rope to spare."

"Show her one more time," Jake said. "I want to make sure she comes back out." While Ferth was less bothered about Alysha making it out in one piece, Jake wanted to ensure she returned in pristine condition.

Ferth demonstrated the knots again, and Alysha once again confirmed she understood how to tie the rope. Jake, too, was satisfied. With the rope fastened tightly around Alysha's waist, Ferth looped the other end around the wagon that had brought the group to the top of the hill, working it into a secure knot. A number of tugs was enough to satisfy him that it was safe (though Alysha was yet again convinced he did so more to ensure the safety of the rope itself, rather than the woman fastened to it).

"Maybe a giant put that boulder there," Ferth commented, in a sarcastic tone, "to let him feast on the bones of the adventurers in peace." He gave a nod to Sev that he was finished.

"To reiterate," Sev said to Alysha. "We're going to lower you down there, and you're going to go looking around for whatever you can find. When you get to the bottom, give two tugs on the rope to let us know you're down. When you're ready to come back up, give three tugs. If we don't hear back from you in an hour, we'll send someone else down, understand?"

"Understood," Alysha said. She glanced to the other residents of Waterhall, seeing the looks of apprehension on their faces. Despite the concern, she knew that they were happy it was her going down there, rather than them. She couldn't blame them for thinking that way.

"It'll probably be dark down there," Alysha said. "I'll need some light."

Sev fetched an unlit torch, which he inserted into the rope around her waist. He next held up a small pouch, shaking some stones out into his palm. "Do you know how to use these?"

"Yes," Alysha said. "Those are firestriker stones. You bang them together to produce a spark, and ignite a flame."

"It has to be done hard," Jake said. "So don't worry about them rubbing together and starting a fire while you're going down."

"We've got a lantern, but that will add too much bulk, and we can't exactly throw it down to you," Sev said, dropping the stones back into the pouch, and securing it on the rope, alongside the touch. "Don't light that torch until you're at the bottom, no matter how dark it is, otherwise you'll risk burning through the rope, and dropping to your death. That everything? Right, get in there."


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