|An ancient empire stands on the brink of a civil war.
His arrival may push it over the edge.
James Calbraith is a 34 year old Poland-born writer, foodie
and traveller, currently residing in South London.
Lord of the Rings and soviet science-fiction, he had his first story published
at the ripe age of eight. After years of bouncing around university faculties,
he moved to London in 2007, found a decent IT job and started writing in
English. His debut historical fantasy novel, “The Shadow of Black
Wings”, has reached ABNA semi-finals and was published in July 2012.
Currently he’s working on the second volume in the cycle, “The Warrior’s
published on Amazon Kindle in June 2012, has reached the tops of Kindle
bestseller lists in USA, UK, France, Germany and Italy.
Unchanging the river flows, and yet the
water is never the same.
In the still pools the foam now gathers,
now vanishes, never staying for long. So in the world are men and their dwellings. Hōjōki
whirred and clicked into place. A valve opened, letting out a thin plume of
grey steam with a quiet hiss. A gold-plated dial moved by a notch. A tiny
mallet sprang from its compartment, striking the brass gong – one, two, three,
four, five, six times.
hour of the Hare already? He turned towards the window and the pink light of
dawn illuminated his face. The temple bell only now started to ring out the
time. He sighed then yawned, rubbing tired eyes. Another night had passed
without him noticing.
with a soft purr and the automatic brush began to move swiftly inside the glass
cloche. A slot opened in the mahogany pedestal and spat out a piece of paper
upon which was written the day’s divination. Hisashige reached for it
absentmindedly, his attention focused on the piece of complex clockwork on
which he had been working. He glanced briefly at the calligraphy – Oku, ‘a gift’. He smiled to himself and
chime rang eight times – counting out the hours of the Western reckoning. The
door slid open and a small boy entered the workshop. With his long and angular
face, puffed lips and wide straight nose, he bore no resemblance to Master
the boy said, presenting Hisashige with a large, ornately packed wooden box.
the clockwork and began to unwrap it eagerly.
sank when he saw the crest on the box, in golden leaf – three lines in a
circle. He lifted the lid without enthusiasm. Inside was what seemed like a
small human head, completely bald.
Hisashige looked at the clock with reproach. ‘It’s just another of Zōzan’s
containing his fee, and gave it to the boy.
of the doll’s head and studied the complex web of gears, cranks and pulleys for
a moment. With one swift twist of his fingers, he snapped a rubber band back
onto the hooked lever.
closing the head and the box. ‘I really need those divinations to be more
precise in the new clock.’
Hisashige’s shoulder to view the mechanism sprawled all over the workbench.
old master said with a gentle smile.
into place and lifted the plate gingerly. He moved across the workshop to a
tall sculpted cabinet of Western make, and opened the oaken door.
to the one standing in the corner of the room, but larger and with even more
dials, switches and levers.
precisely into its slot and turned the key. The gentle warm hum of the
elemental engine filled the cabinet. Steam hissed from the valves.
perfect,’ the old master commented as the dials turned to their desired
positions, showing exactly the same time and date as was visible on the old
clock. ‘I can’t find any fault within the mechanism. The minute hand is even
more precise than before. All the Major Trigrams match. But look at that zodiac
Pictures of animals, encrusted in black lacquer, appeared in the glass lens one
by one – monkey, rooster, dog, boar, mouse, ox…
the boy nodded.
months now – water ox, to be precise. But the plate continued to turn
inexplicably past the tiger and hare until, at last, it halted.
sleeping dragon glinted mockingly from the lens.
Llambed to Dinas Bran is computed at seventy miles, as the crow flies. The
prevailing wind is north-westerly, steady at fifteen knots along the entire
distance. Given an average velocity of an unladen Purple Swift equal to forty
knots, and allowing for the pressure pocket of Berwyn Hills… – oof!
someone and dropped the exercise book to the ground, his notes scattering all
over the freshly cut grass. Bran knew who it was just from looking at their
feet clad in thick leather boots. Only the Seaxe wore shoes on the sacred
meadow of the Scholars’ Grove.
Toadboy, it’s as if you wanted to be beaten up,’ a familiar vile voice mocked.
and sighed. Wulfhere of Warwick towered above him in his impeccable blue
uniform, his sky-blue eyes staring at Bran with a mixture of aversion and
Bran stooped to pick up his papers. ‘I’m in a hurry for the Octagonometry
the flaxen-haired Seaxe. ‘What’s the point? You and your Toad will never pass
Emrys,’ Bran said coldly, ‘and it can outfly any dragon in this school,
including your fat thoroughbred.’
tightened his fists, tiny sparks crackling around his knuckles. He glanced
towards the red brick arches of the Southern cloister, where the house prefect
serf, you’re lucky I’m not in the mood today,’ the Seaxe scoffed and pushed
scattered again. Gathering his notes, Bran mumbled a Prydain slur, loud enough
only for Wulfhere to hear. The Seaxe stopped and turned around slowly.
around helplessly. Nobody was coming to his aid, of course; this wasn’t a fight
worth joining in. Somebody was paying attention though. The red-haired Pictish
lass, Eithne, stood under a large oak tree with several giggling friends. Their
eyes met. He saw pity and embarrassment in hers, and something inside him sank.
robes of the Geomancers, although Bran knew her dream was to one day become a Derwydd – Druid at Mon Island. The
brown-green, plaid cloak suited her auburn hair and green eyes, which were
framed in a blue spiral tattoo. They liked each other but never went any
further than a few walks under the oak trees and an occasional awkward teenage
kiss. In the end their relationship had fizzled out.
slur, suddenly feeling brave. Now everyone heard him. Several people stopped
curiously, waiting to see what would happen. Bran didn’t care. There were only
a few days left until the final tests. Wulfhere could bully him all he wanted
now, as long as he left Bran enough time for study. After the exams it would no
now, Taffy. You’ll have to take your tests in the infirmary!’
Bran’s neck. With an electric crackle and sizzle, a cloud of painful sparks
appeared around Wulfhere’s hand. Bran made no sound, though his eyes welled up.
He could not move – one of Wulf’s associates held him in a Binding spell. He
could feel the sparks scorch his nerve endings. It felt as if his neck was on
fire, but he knew the electricity would leave no marks on the skin.
was a Highland Azure, a lightning dragon. Each rider could channel some of his
dragon’s power in combat, with proper training. The ability to tap into the
power of lightning made Wulfhere’s punishments both immensely painful and
he could no longer take the pain and would have to cry out for mercy, the
provost finally appeared, heading towards them. Wulfhere let go of Bran, who
fell to the ground, gasping.
next time, Taffy,’ he hissed and shuffled off into the trees.
the provost asked, reaching his hand out to Bran, ‘did he hurt you?’
murmured with embarrassment and raised himself slowly. He glanced towards the
large oak tree. The girl was nowhere to be seen. Sighing, he retrieved his
papers from the grass for the third time and headed towards the dormitory
dragon pulled up and rolled on its back in a tight half-loop. Ground whizzed
past the top of Bran’s head. He jerked the top leeward rein. A leather strap
fastened to the base of one of the dragon’s horns tightened, and the mount
turned upright. With one beat of its leathery wings it caught a strong waft of
the Ninth Wind and its flight stabilised. Bran breathed out.
manoeuvres finished, Bran brushed an unruly fringe of black hair out of his
bright green eyes and bade his mount swoop down towards the target range. The
dragon needed no guidance here. They had been practising on the range for two
years and both knew exactly what to do. The beast turned confidently towards
the first objective, a large bale of straw. The dragon’s neck stretched in a
straight line, its jaws opened.
effect as the target dashed past. Shaking its head, the beast turned around to
try again. Again it merely coughed and spluttered with great effort. A thin
plume of smoke puffed from the dragon’s nostrils.
Emrys?’ Bran asked, distraught.
whimpered. It could not breathe fire. The boy quickly recognised the symptoms
and the acrid smell of the dragon’s breath. Somebody had fed it Iceberry water.
was capable of such a cruel prank on the day of the exam; but there was no time
to think of vengeance. Seconds were running out, the teachers below were no
doubt already frowning at his lack of performance. Not one of the targets had,
as yet, been set on fire.
need Emrys’ breath. He could channel the power of flame himself. It would have
far shorter range and energy, but it could still work…
the Farlink. The mental connection enabled him to steer the dragon with much
greater precision than reins and spurs. The beast, following his unspoken
orders, dived once more towards the bale of straw. He only had a split second
as the mount sped past the target, whooshing a few feet above the grass at a
dazzling speed. He reached out with his fingers.
of dragon fire shot from his fingers. Its tip reached the straw and the bale
burst into flames. Elated, he repeated the exercise with the next target, a
wooden horse, then with yet another and another, five more times in total. With
each objective destroyed his exhaustion grew. Repeatedly channelling the dragon
flame drained his energy immensely. At last he managed to land before the
teachers’ observation tower, panting, sweating, too tired to even dismount.
Struggling to keep his eyes open, he listened to the Master of Aerobatics
assessing his trial.
certainly… unorthodox,’ the teacher said, coughing nervously, ‘but you did hit
all your targets in time, so I have no choice but to pass you.’
deeply and closed his eyes. All thought of revenge on Wulf disappeared from his
mind. It didn’t matter anymore, he had passed his final exam – he was out of
the wretched place at last.
grip of his heavy cavalry backsword, a proud, solid pattern tested in the Mad
King’s wars. He regarded his weapon. The single-edged blade was broad and
slightly curved, three feet long, with rows of runes running along a deep
fuller. The quillon was curved in the shape of a rampant dragon, the brass
mountings and circular guard ornamented in the form of claws, flames and
leathery wings. The wyvern-hide grip culminated in a pommel sculpted into a
dragon’s head. Anyone looking at the sword would have little doubt as to its
thirty other similarly armed boys and girls, all excited and relieved at the
same time, all wearing the uniforms of the dragon cadet corps, steel blue with
golden stripes. They hailed from all over the Dracaland Empire. Most of them
were Prydain, like Bran, with black hair, Roman noses and olive complexion, or
the golden-haired, blue-eyed Seaxe from beyond the Dyke. A few black-eyed
Cruthin from Ériu across the sea and tattooed Picts from the northern realm of
Alba were keeping to themselves at the back.
nearing the end of his speech. Short and impish, he had to use an ornate
mahogany step to reach over the pulpit. His long red beard was forked neatly
and tucked under a gem-studded belt. Wind tore on the bushy tufts of his hair –
there was no roof above the ruined keep inside which they had all gathered. The
headmaster was a Corrie, a member of an ageless race of wrinkly-faced,
red-haired dwarves living among the dales and lakes of Rheged in the north.
Long pointed ears gave him a mischievous appearance, belying his position and
the main part of his speech, waited until the din of whispers quietened and then
held up a sword in a trembling hand. The straight-edged, broad blade was rusted
and notched in a few places, although the hilt was new, gleaming gold and
encrusted with gems.
hundred and ten years ago that Owain the Wyrmslayer established this
illustrious Academia for the purpose of studying the ways and lore of the
mighty Beast, soon after defeating the Norse dragons at Crug Mawr with this
very sword,’ the headmaster shook the old blade.
around and Bran’s eyes inadvertently followed towards the familiar thick walls
of the Great Auditorium, rising towards the sky like the crooked teeth of a
long dead giant. Tapestries of red and white dragons were brought to adorn the
cold stones of this vast ancient ruin during the ceremony. The heavy oaken
chairs upon which the teachers were sitting recalled the time of the War of
Three Thorns and the realm of Harri Two Crowns. Leaves rustled and sparrows
chirped on the branches of ancient oak and elm trees growing in a dense circle
around the keep. Far in the distance a booming sound of a siren announced lunch
break at the local elemental mine.
the Sixteenth Year of Victoria Alexandrina, the Queen on Dragon Throne! Today
you finish your four years at the Academy. The bards will now take my place on
this stage to tell tales of past glory much better than I can. Let me just put
a final touch on all of you before I release you into this dangerous
moment Bran had waited for the whole day – the entire four years since he had
first crossed the threshold of the Academy. The headmaster straightened
himself, suddenly full of youthful vigour. He raised Owain’s Sword towards the
blue sky and whirled it around in a complex pattern. The air sparkled and
buzzed with powerful magic, and the fresh scent of ozone spread throughout the
auditorium. A flash of radiant light flared above the heads of the gathered,
taking the form of a great white eagle hovering in the blue sky. The raptor
shrieked and a shower of stars rained down from under its spread wings, each
dazzling star landing upon a shoulder of an astonished student.
been marked with the Seal of Llambed,’ explained the headmaster after the spell
dissipated. ‘Those who know how to look will always see it upon you. Bear it
proudly. It is not only a sign of education – it is your talisman, a precious
gift. Three times in your life you will be able to call upon its power – and it
will deliver you from any danger.’
throughout the keep. For some of the students this was the first time they had
heard of the magic mark and its power, but not so for Bran.
Seal before you know it,’ his father, Dylan, had warned him. ‘Don’t worry,
everyone does that. It’s only there to help you through the first years of life
as a dragon rider outside the school walls.’
yours for the first time?’ the boy had asked. ‘Was it in a battle?’
eleven then, just about to enter the Academy.
glamorous as that,’ Dylan had replied, chuckling. ‘I was still in the Academy,
getting my baccalaureate. I was racing another boy, one of the Warwicks, along
the Dyfrdwy Valley and I broke my dragon’s wing under the Great Aqueduct. A
hundred feet drop, that is. I had no choice but to call on the White Eagle.’
straight into the Dean’s office!’ Dylan laughed. ‘I got a right telling off for
wasting a charge so recklessly. That’s how the Seal works – unexpectedly. You
never know where it will take you. Other schools have similar charms, but none
are that fidgety – or that powerful. It will save your life, always, one way or
the headmaster announced in a strong voice.
entered the podium to lead the choir, and the crowd erupted into the Academy’s
anthem enthusiastically, as startled sparrows took off from the oak trees.
mousey-haired woman, browsed the piece of parchment unhappily.
gan Gwaelod. I can’t say I’m not disappointed,’ she said, tutting and shaking
her head, ‘your father was-’
this Academy ever had,’ muttered Bran, rolling his eyes. ‘I know, ma’am, but
aren’t you being a bit unfair? I did quite well where it matters.’
matters, boy? Where it matters? Every
single subject in this school matters. You have barely passed the athletics,
your history knowledge is non-existent and your alchemy score was the worst in
feigning embarrassment, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had
graduated, and nothing else was important right now. He did not wish to spend
anymore unnecessary minutes within the college walls.
rider, certainly,’ continued Madam Magnusdottir, calming down. ‘One of our
best. Your Farlink quotient is frankly astonishing. That much of Dylan’s blood
shows, and you have his magic talent, of course. You could easily take up
wizardry as the second faculty. But it takes much more to achieve real
success in a dragon rider’s career. In truth, I would rather you stayed in
school for four more years. Catch up a bit on the old scientia vulgaris.’
startled. Stay in school for four more years? That seemed like such a nightmare
right now. Besides, usually remaining for a baccalaureate was considered a
reward, not punishment for bad grades.
my boy,’ the dean insisted, ‘you have time until October, hmm? Will you
ma’am.’ Bran hesitated. ‘Will there be anything else, ma’am?’ he asked,
reaching for his diploma.
stalled, still holding the parchment.
looking earnest, ‘I don’t mean it in a bad way, but – we could get you a better
dragon if you remained with us.’
barely concealing his anger.
wrong with Emrys!’ he exclaimed. ‘How many more times do I have to prove it to
you all?’ He grabbed the diploma from the teacher’s grasp, tearing off a bit in
the corner. ‘This is all my father’s doing, isn’t it?’
your father had nothing – ’
enough, ma’am.’ Bran raised his hand. ‘I bid you farewell.’
and stormed outside.