Jarryd’s mother was arguing with the shop keeper, a little man with a round head dotted with random tufts of gray hair.
“All the color washed out of this ribbon the first time I washed it. Look at it. It’s practically gray. Who wants to wear a gray ribbon in their hair?”
The little man crossed his arms and shook his head vigorously. “I’m not responsible for whatever you did after you bought the ribbon.”
“Are you saying this is my fault?”
There it was, the sound Jarryd’s mother got in her voice when she was about to get angry. Jarryd was only five, but he’d long ago learned to recognize that sound. It meant he should stop what he was doing if he didn’t want to get into trouble.
Unfortunately, the shop keeper didn’t seem to understand.
“It’s surely not my fault,” he said stubbornly. “All my products are the highest quality.”
“Maybe you don’t know what quality means,” she retorted.
The little man leaned forward, putting his hands on the counter. “I’ve been in this business for thirty years and I…”
The shop keeper continued on, but Jarryd was no longer listening. It didn’t mean anything to him anyway. He heard his mother reply, her voice getting a little louder, but by then it was all background noise.
What he did notice was that his mother wasn’t paying any attention to him for the moment. That meant opportunity. Jarryd didn’t get to come into Creekside—the closest village to the farm where he lived with his parents—all that often, and when he did, his mother always kept a tight grip on him. Which meant he never got to explore.
This was his chance.
Jarryd took a step back. His mother didn’t notice. He took another step back. Still nothing. She was fixed on the shop keeper.
Swallowing hard, he turned around and hurried away. With every step he expected his mother to yell at him, but she didn’t. It was market day and the street was fairly crowded, but no one seemed to notice one little boy on his own. He wanted to run, but he had a feeling that wouldn’t be a good idea, so he forced himself to keep walking.
The market was small, and Jarryd was soon across it. He ducked between a stall selling clay pots and one selling rugs and then he was out of the marketplace and standing in a street that was nearly empty.
He paused then, struck by the enormity of what he was doing. Mother was going to chew on him for doing this. He was going to get extra chores. She might even take away his favorite toy, a figure his father had carved for him from wood. His father was really good at carving. The figure was wearing armor and had a sword strapped to his hip. Jarryd played with it endlessly, sending the man out to rescue princesses from bad guys and son on. His father said if he was good, he’d carve a horse for him too.
But he just had to see what was going on in the main square. He and his mother had passed through there on the way to the market and he’d seen a crowd gathering. A lot of them seemed mad and one man was doing a lot of shouting. When he asked his mother what was going on, she latched onto his hand and practically dragged him out of the square. She wouldn’t answer any of his questions, either.
Which only made it that much more fascinating. He imagined all kinds of things that could be happening. Maybe the king was coming. Yesterday Jarryd’s father said something about the king going somewhere. Maybe that’s what everyone was so excited about.
There was no way to know unless he went and saw for himself.
It didn’t take long to get to the main square. There were a lot more people there now. Some he recognized, like old man Potter and the widow Ferah, but also plenty of others he didn’t, people who’d probably come from outlying farms or nearby villages.
They were clustered around Rector Freckus, the priest of Creekside’s only temple. The Rector was standing on the steps of the temple, high enough that his upper body was visible above the crowd, which was clustered thickly around him.
Jarryd didn’t like Freckus. He knew he was supposed to—Rector Freckus was the mortal voice of the god Vidon after all—but he couldn’t help himself. The Rector seemed so angry all the time. He frightened Jarryd. Every week he went with his parents to the temple to worship and every week he dreaded it. The things the Rector said about what Vidon did to those who sinned gave him nightmares.
Jarryd came to a stop when he saw the Rector. Almost, almost he turned around and ran back to the market. He didn’t really want to hear whatever it was the man had to say.
But then he squared his shoulders and moved closer. His father always told him to brave. Now that he was here, he was going to find out what was going on.
“Let this be a warning to all of you,” Rector Freckus said, pointing a long, bony finger at the people crowded around them. His skin was sallow, his nose so large it was almost a beak. His white hair hung to his shoulders. He was wearing his official attire, an ankle-length black robe cinched at his waist with a piece of frayed rope. Perched on his head was a tall, pointed hat and around his neck hung the symbol of his god, a thorny branch cast in crude iron.
“When you let evil into your hearts, Vidon sees. And what Vidon sees, he punishes.” He glared at the people gathered around, challenging them to defy him. None did. Heads were lowered and sidelong looks were exchanged.
Satisfied that his audience was properly cowed, the Rector turned his head to the side and motioned. “Bring the wicked forth!” he boomed. “Let him meet his punishment.”
The temple door swung open and three men emerged. The one in the front had big eyes and was shaking. His hands were bound behind his back and the two men behind him were gripping his upper arms.
Jarryd recognized the man right away. His name was Barney. Barney helped out on his parents’ farm sometimes during harvest season, when they needed the extra hands. He worked for other farmers too and did odd jobs around the village. Jarryd liked Barney. Barney always had a big, gap-toothed smile for him. And Barney was more than happy to put Jarryd up on his shoulders and pretend to be his horse. It was more fun riding Barney than the only horse Jarryd’s family owned, an old, sway-backed nag with only two speeds, plod and stop.
Jarryd frowned. What were they doing to Barney? Why was the Rector mad at him? Barney never hurt anyone. He felt a shiver of fear and looked over his shoulder, almost hoping to see his mother there, come to drag him away. Something bad was going to happen, he just knew it. And he didn’t want to be here when it did.
But there was no sign of his mother. There was no one to take him away. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the scene unfolding before them. No one noticed the small boy standing at the back.
“Please, Rector Freckus,” Barney said as the men pushed him up beside the Rector, “I didn’t do nothing. I’m a good sheep, you know that.” The Rector called the residents of Creekside his sheep. He treated them like it as well, telling them regularly that without his harsh guidance, they would surely fall to the wolves that waited for all who strayed from the narrow path of righteousness.
The Rector fixed him with a hard look, fierce enough that Barney, who’d been about to say something else, shut his mouth suddenly.
“Do you deny that you see demons?” Freckus said, thrusting his bony chin at the man.
Barney withered under his glare. “They…they aren’t demons.” His voice was childlike and pleading, but it had no effect on Freckus, whose glare only deepened.
“Don’t make it worse for yourself,” the Rector said. “Your only hope now is confession.”
Barney looked to the crowd for help but saw none there. He lowered his head. “I…I see things, it’s true. But I don’t think it’s demons…”
“You don’t think.” The Rector’s voice was laden with scorn. “And what would you know? Are you a rector, chosen by Vidon to guide the sheep of the world?” He didn’t wait for Barney to reply but continued on ruthlessly. “No, you’re not. You’re only a man, and a simple one at that.”
Barney’s lip quivered. He looked like a dog waiting to be beaten by his master.
The Rector turned to the waiting crowd. His voice dropped to an ominous growl. “What does Vidon say awaits those who see demons?”
With one voice, the crowd responded, a single word: “Damnation.”
“Damnation!” the Rector thundered, shaking his fist in the air, his white hair waving.
“No!” Barney wailed. “It’s not like that. I’m a good man.”
The Rector ignored him. His focus was on the crowd. More than ever Jarryd wanted to turn and run away. But he couldn’t. He felt rooted to the spot. Something very bad was coming, and there was no escape.
“And what does the Iron God tell us to do with the damned?” Freckus said.
A roar came from the crowd. Mixed into the roar were two words, repeated over and over: “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!”
Barney turned white. He tried to run, but the men flanking him clamped down on his arms with fanatic strength and he got nowhere.
Without another word, the Rector strode off the steps of the temple. The crowd parted for him, the chant dying away. The men dragged Barney after him. Barney had ceased struggling. Tears streamed down his broad face.
Jarryd turned to follow the Rector’s progress and saw what he’d missed before. A wooden stake, driven into the ground, a large quantity of wood piled nearby.
Barney was lashed to the stake as people surged forward and began piling the wood around him. He didn’t resist. His lips moved, but Jarryd could not hear what he said.
Too fast the task was completed. The townspeople moved back, leaving Barney alone. The Rector strode forward.
“Last chance to confess,” he hissed.
“Then you are surely damned.”
Barney looked around, seeking help from the onlookers. “Barrin,” he called out to a stout-looking man wearing a blacksmith’s long, leather apron, “you know me! You know I don’t have no truck with demons.”
The blacksmith turned his face away.
Next Barney’s pleading look fell on a stout woman with curly black hair and round shoulders. She wore a thick, homespun dress that reached to the ground and a bonnet.
“Orta!” he cried. “You know me! I helped you fix the fence around your garden. You know I wouldn’t have nothing to do with demons.”
Orta flinched as if struck, then turned her face away as well.
“What I see in my visions isn’t demons,” Barney said, looking at the Rector. The tears were wetting his tunic. “I think…I think they’re something else. I think they’re a warning.”
“A warning that you have refused to heed,” the Rector said, pointing at him. “And for this you shall suffer eternal damnation.” He turned to a man holding a lit torch.
The wood caught, the flames spreading greedily. Smoke crept upward.
“I’m a good man!” Barney wailed. “I don’t—”
The flames reached him then and his words cut off, replaced by a cry of pain. He fought wildly, but the ropes holding him were secure, the stake anchored deeply into the ground. His trousers blackened, then began to burn.
Wild animal screams came from him as the flames reached ever higher. Jarryd screamed along with him, his childish cries lost in the sound.
The flames crackled and spat. Barney’s shirt was in flames, tongues of fire sprouting in his hair. The smell of burning flesh filled Jarryd’s nostrils.
“You know meeee!” Barney howled.
Then suddenly Jarryd’s mother was there. She swept him up in her arms and carried him away from the horror.
knew that no matter how far she took him, he would never be completely free of
Jarryd lay in his bed that night, unable to sleep. Over and over he saw the scene repeat itself, the flames climbing up Barney’s body, his hair burning. The screams echoed through his mind.
But the worst was the smell. It lingered in his nostrils. He drew it in with every breath. It made him sick to his stomach.
He could hear his parents in the next room, talking about him. He couldn’t make out the words, but he didn’t need to. Their voices were laden with fear and worry. They were afraid. For him.
They’d been that way all day. They tried to hide it, but he could hear it in every word, almost every breath. It radiated off them, like heat from a wood stove. Their fear fed his own, for in his mind they knew everything, and if they were afraid, then something must be terribly wrong.
Jarryd rolled onto his side, drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his pillow. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, as if somehow that could drive the memories away.
At some point exhaustion took over and he drifted off to a troubled sleep.
As he slept, he dreamed.
He looked down on a gaping hole in the earth. But this was no ordinary hole. It was a rip in the fabric of reality, an opening into a place of chaos and darkness. The hole was on the shore of an unknown sea, thick, lush trees and undergrowth lining one side of it. Purple flames lined the circumference of the rip.
Then, from out of the blackness, something emerged.
It was huge and black and scaled. Claws longer than Jarryd was tall grasped the edge of the rip, flexed, and began drawing the monstrous thing upward.
A head bigger than any home in Creekside rose from the rip. Its teeth were long and curved, its mouth large enough to effortlessly swallow a horse whole. The eyes were yellow, inhuman, cruel, pools of madness that drew him in, threatening to swallow him as well.
The rest of the creature emerged, four muscled, powerful limbs. Wings unfurled from its back, massive sheets of leathery membrane that blotted out the sky.
Behind the dragon, hordes of smaller monstrous things, all gaping teeth and slashing claws, climbed from the rip as well, swarming out onto the sand.
The dragon’s mouth gaped wide and indigo fire spat and crackled from it, a wave of chaos and destruction that swept away everything before it, including Jarryd.
╬ ╬ ╬
Jarryd sat up in bed gasping, a cry on his lips, his heart pounding. He looked around wildly. There was nothing there. The house was dark and silent.
Footsteps and moments later his door swung open. His mother hurried into the room, carrying a candle. She sat down on his bed next to him, setting the candle on the small shelf above his bed. She pulled him into a fierce embrace and held him.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured, her voice husky.
She let him go and looked into his eyes. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
He opened his mouth to tell her, then stopped as he realized something.
He’d seen demons.
He knew then that he couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t ever tell anyone. If people found out, he’d end up like Barney.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “I had a bad dream.” It hurt to say the words. He never lied to his parents. He knew lying was wrong. It was something bad people did.
But he had no choice.
His father came into the room and put his hand on Jarryd’s head. “It’s no wonder, after what you’ve been through. You’ll be all right. It just takes time.”
Jarryd looked up at him and nodded. “Okay.” Then he looked away.
That was a lie too.
He wasn’t all
right. He never would be again.
Teeran, Jarryd’s father, was leaving the blacksmith’s shop where he’d gone to pick up a new buckle for the horse’s harness when he saw the boxy wagon rolling into town. It wasn’t an ordinary wagon by any means. It was painted bright red, for one thing, with yellow wheels and trim. On the side in tall letters it said Tinker Theo’s Treasures.
The wagon rolled into the shade of a large elm tree at the edge of the village and came to a stop. The man who climbed down from the seat was short and compact, with a bushy white beard and a tall hat with a tiny brim. He was wearing a black coat with silver buttons and had a long, red scarf tied around his neck.
Teeran walked up as the man was opening the doors built into the side of the wagon. Behind the doors were numerous shelves and cubby holes of various sizes, all of them laden with various items, from carved figurines to polished crystals to small, wooden boxes with intricate designs painted on the sides.
“Welcome to Creekside, Theo,” Teeran said.
Theo turned, a smile crinkling his face. He’d been coming to Creekside since long before Teeran had moved there with his wife and infant son nearly five years before. He showed up several times a year as he crisscrossed the region, selling a mix of the unusual and necessary household items.
“Teeran,” Theo said, extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again.” One of Theo’s skills was remembering everyone’s name, not an easy thing considering how many villages and hamlets he visited during the course of a normal year.
They shook hands and Theo returned to setting up his wagon for business. He took down a table that was strapped to the back of the wagon and set it up, then began taking objects from the wagon and setting them out on display.
“Is there anything in particular that you’re looking for, Teeran?” Theo asked. “Maybe something pretty for your wife?”
“No. Nothing for her. But I might get something for my son.”
Theo turned around, his hands full of colored, scented candles, which he set out on the table. He looked around. “Where is young Jarryd? I thought he always tagged along with you when you came into town. He’s not sick, is he?”
“No, he’s not sick. Not in the usual sense, anyway. I asked him if he wanted to come with me, but he said no.”
Theo set out a small music box and tilted his head to the side. “Jarryd passing up a chance to come into town? That doesn’t sound like him at all.”
Teeran sighed. “It’s not.”
Theo’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong?”
“There was an…incident. He saw something he shouldn’t have.” Teeran felt reluctant to talk about it. He’d truly liked Barney. The man had been simple, sure, but he’d always been kind to Jarryd, and he could be counted on to put in a hard day’s work when he was hired. He always did it with a smile on his face, too. “He’s been staying in his room a lot. He doesn’t go outside. He barely eats. I was thinking that maybe if I bought him a gift, it would help him pull out of it.”
Theo nodded, concern marking his face. “I’m sure I have something that would help. Hold on.”
He turned to the wagon and opened a small drawer. From it he took two lead figurines. “How about these toy soldiers?” he asked, setting them on the table. The soldiers held swords and seemed to be on the verge of charging into battle.
Teeran looked them over, then shook his head. “I don’t know. After what he saw, maybe it shouldn’t be something violent.”
Theo turned the crank on the side of the music box and a peppy tune played. “Does he like music?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think that’s it either.” Teeran’s gaze roamed the shelves and cubby holes in the side of the wagon. He noticed a slim, clothbound book standing on one of the shelves. What he could see of the title on the cover caught his attention. He pointed. “Can I see that?”
“Sure, but I don’t think it’s something your son will like.” Theo laid the book on the table. The Code of the Knights Fidelis it said on the cover. Under that was a drawing of crossed swords.
For a moment, Teeran simply stared down at it, a mix of conflicting emotions washing over him. Staring at it dredged up old memories, along with secrets, things never shared even with his wife. Especially not his wife. It was as if this one book was a doorway back to a whole part of his life he thought he’d forever put behind him. Buying this could open something he’d thought closed forever. Probably he should tell Theo to put it back. Buy the boy the soldiers or some other toy that would distract him.
But the boy needed something. Teeran was genuinely worried about him.
“How much is it?”
╬ ╬ ╬
Later, at home, he showed the book to Hennah, his wife.
“Is that a good idea?” she said in a low voice, looking around to make sure no one was nearby, even though they were alone on the farm, the only other person there their son, who was still in his room. “You don’t think it will raise suspicions?”
“I don’t know,” Teeran said. He honestly didn’t.
“It’s probably okay,” she said. She had her arms crossed and was rubbing her upper arms like she did when she was nervous. It was something she did a lot. “It’s been five years. There’s no reason for anyone to be looking for us still. If they ever were. What do we matter anyway?” She looked at him with her soft eyes, imploring him to soothe her fears.
He glanced away, the secrets crowding around again. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe he should tell her now.
But he couldn’t. He didn’t know how she would react. It was hard to tell with Hennah. She was a good, loving wife and mother, but she worried. She could tie herself in knots for days over the littlest thing.
He couldn’t tell her. Not now. Maybe not ever.
“Maybe it will help. I don’t know what else to do. I’m frightened,” she said.
“I’ll go talk to him.” Teeran entered the farmhouse.
It was a good, solidly-built home of split logs, three rooms since they’d added on bedrooms for he and his wife and their son. Much better than the shack they’d lived in when they first moved to Creekside, while Jarryd was still a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. They might not have survived that first winter if their neighbors on the surrounding farms hadn’t come together and helped them build this place. They were good people here, the kind who looked out for each other and lent a hand when it was needed.
Which made what had happened to Barney that much harder to deal with. How they could have gone along with such an atrocity bothered Teeran deeply. Some of those who’d been present as Barney was burned were from distant communities, but most were from right here. Like Barrin, the town blacksmith. He was a good man, hot tempered for sure, but generally friendly and helpful. He’d extended credit more than once to Teeran when he didn’t have the coin to pay for a tool or repair he needed. How could Barrin have participated in such an act? And he wasn’t the only one that Teeran knew who had. It was like a curtain had been pulled aside, revealing a dark, ugly side to the community that Teeran had never dreamed existed. He’d thought they’d left such ugliness behind forever when they fled here. Finding out it was here all along was shattering.
It was the Rector’s doing. That was what Teeran tried to tell himself. He’d had a bad feeling about the man ever since he arrived in the village, nearly three years before, moving into the empty temple and converting it to Vidon, the god of justice and retribution. There was something dark and a little disturbing about the man. Both Teeran and Hennah hated going to the services he conducted, but they missed them only rarely. It was important to fit into the community, he’d told his wife more than once. And since nearly everyone in and around Creekside went to Vidon’s temple every week on Rest Day, their family should as well.
What went unsaid was the fear that if they didn’t go, Rector Freckus would turn his hot gaze on them. If that happened, they might have to flee here as well. Teeran didn’t think he could go through that again. He was sure his wife couldn’t.
Teeran tapped on his son’s door. When there was no answer, he opened it and went in.
The room was dim, the only light coming through the lone window and that sparse due to the closed shutters. Jarryd was lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“I got something for you,” Teeran said.
Jarryd didn’t respond.
Teeran opened the shutters to let some light in, noticing how Jarryd winced as he did so, the sight of it cutting clear to his heart. He walked over to the bed and held out the book. Jarryd ignored it.
“It’s the Code,” he said, sitting down on the side of the bed, feeling sick at how haggard his son looked. How long had it been since he slept? “The Knights’ Code.”
For the first time, Jarryd responded. His eyes flicked to the book.
“Knights?” he asked.
“The Knights Fidelis,” Teeran said.
“I never heard of them.”
“Maybe it’s time you did. Would you like that?”
“The Knights Fidelis were formed long, long ago by the gods Mymos and Ulena, also known as the Lord and Lady.”
Jarryd perked up a little. “There’s other gods than Vidon?”
“Lots of them.”
“Are they like Vidon?” The boy sounded fearful.
“Not at all. They want to help people. That’s why they formed the Knights. You see, there was a great danger threatening the world. For the Dragon Queen of Chaos had once again awakened and was trying to escape her prison.”
“There’s a Dragon Queen?” His little eyes grew very round.
“Not anymore. The Lord and Lady found ten great champions. To those champions they gave their power and they named them the Knights Fidelis. The ten Knights were very powerful. They were stronger than other people. They could run faster and jump higher. They had magic too. Their swords could cut through stone. Fire came from their hands.”
“What did they do?”
“They fought the evil Queen. They used the power given to them by the gods to drive the Queen back into her prison for all time.”
Jarryd’s mouth formed an O as he thought about this. Then he asked, “Where are the Knights now?”
“They’re gone,” Teeran said, feeling a great sadness at speaking the words. It had been five years now since the order was destroyed by one of their own.
“So there’s no one left to fight the dragon,” Jarryd said sadly.
“No one needs to. I told you, the Knights already defeated her. They drove her and all her demons back into the Abyss.”
“Oh.” The little boy didn’t look convinced.
“We still have the Code,” Teeran said.
“What’s the Code?” Jarryd asked.
“It’s like a set of rules,” Teeran replied. “Well, maybe rules isn’t the right word. It’s a guide, something to help the Knights navigate through life. A way for them to stay good.”
Jarryd sat up, several emotions mixed on his face. “The Knights followed the Code so they could stay good?”
Teeran nodded. “The early Knights knew how hard it was to make it in the world without losing their way. The Code was meant to help them stay on the true path so that they could serve the Lord and the Lady as they were sworn to do.”
“Read it to me,” Jarryd said.
“I will,” Teeran said. “Later. I have to—”
Jarryd gave him a pleading look and Teeran knew he couldn’t refuse him. The lower field needed planting and the ground was soft right now after last night’s rain, but he couldn’t find it in him to say no to his son. Especially not now. He opened the slim volume, tilting the book so it would catch the light, and began to read.
“A Knight holds fast to the righteous way.
“A Knight is a bulwark against the forces of evil…”
╬ ╬ ╬
After his father finished reading the Code, he put the book on the table beside Jarryd’s bed and left the room. As soon as the door had closed behind him, Jarryd got out of bed and knelt on the floor. He clasped the Code in his hands and bowed his head like he’d been taught to do at the temple.
He was still frightened and confused, but now he had hope.
With the power of the Lord and Lady, the Knights drove away the Dragon Queen and all her demons. Maybe, if he was good, if he tried very hard, the Lord and Lady would keep him safe from the Queen and her demons. Maybe he would be saved.
“A Knight holds fast to the righteous way,” he whispered. “A Knight is a bulwark against the forces of evil.” He couldn’t remember any more of the Code, and he didn’t know what all the words meant, but he repeated those two lines over and over again, clinging to them as if he were drowning.
There you have it! The first three chapters of book 1 of my new series, Dragon Queen of Chaos. You’re going to have to wait a bit for it to be published, like January, because I want to publish the first four books all at once to indulge those binge readers out there. (You know who you are!) Stay tuned for more updates…