Enjoy the following sneak peek.
A Keeper’s Tale:
The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon
Along the southern border, a company of soldiers surged forward like the waters of the Great River, battling a deadly foe and performing acts of heroism.
At his desk, Tomkin Thornhewn sat still like the waters of a small puddle, shuffling through a pile of paper and only dreaming of such renown.
Beyond the door of Tomkin’s small study, late summer sunlight streamed into the empty hall of Marshwell Holding. The only noise was the rustle of paper as Tomkin rummaged through curious old maps, stiff accounting pages, and the soldiers’ skirmish reports, finally finding the letter from his father.
Your brother, Elton, had a day worthy of one of your stories. While leading a morning patrol, he stopped to help a soldier whose horse had foundered, and discovered a stash of letters beneath the man’s saddle. The soldier had been spying for Baylon the entire summer. ’Tis no wonder all our plans have failed. He confessed that the vile Baylonians hold his wife, who is with child. The poor woman is in the warlord’s camp. She is kept in a cell, shackled.
Tonight, at dark, we infiltrate and rescue her from the devils. Would that I had an army instead of this small company! I would make sure the fiends did not survive the night. As it stands, we will trust to a moonless night and stealth.
When your mother returns from the north, the two of you should celebrate. Your plan for crossing the twin rivers was flawless. We at the front would have a hard time without minds such as yours supporting us from home.
With my love and gratitude,
Post note: I forgot to mention that Elton, while bringing the spy back to camp, heard a clink in the woods. When he investigated, he flushed out a scouting party from Baylon and captured their commander. The man is the highest-ranking prisoner we have ever caught. Heroics come more naturally to your brother than any man deserves. When he is duke, he shall do more between his first full moons than I have done in my entire life.
Tomkin shook his head and let out a huff somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. It would probably only take Elton a fortnight. He jotted down some notes on the soldiers’ reports, putting them in order, underlining parts he’d add to Marshwell’s official records.
…Sir Elton leapt from the rocks and knocked the Baylonese soldier from his horse…unhorsed two more devils with a single stroke. Tomkin underlined the phrase. How does one even do that?
Tomkin glanced out the window. It was past noon. Today’s messenger should arrive soon with word from the border. How had his father’s small band rescued a woman from a camp as large as the warlord’s? There was a twinge of dread in his stomach. Or maybe it was hope. Or a stomach-churning combination of the two.
He imagined the captured woman cowering in the corner of an earthen cell. The soldiers moving through the woods, shadows slipping among the snakes of campfire smoke, the mouse-like creak of the cell door. Lifting the woman from the darkness, carrying her into the wide night.
The hall door swung open, scattering Tomkin’s thoughts like a startled flock of birds, and he was back at his desk in Marshwell. Twinkles of dust spun lazily near the windows. The scent of roasting chestnuts wafted by.
“Dorlow the Candlemaker,” the page announced.
Tomkin let out a long, deflated breath. Candles. Right. The holding needed candles. He gathered the soldiers’ reports and closed them in his record book, setting it off to the side to make room for the accounting ledger.
“Send him in.” Tomkin took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He could make his own day sound exciting. His brother might be off rescuing the helpless, but Tomkin was…buying candles…bringing light to the holding. Tomkin Thornhewn, Bringer of Light.
The stories from the army called to him, so Tomkin set a map facedown on the pile, hiding anything exciting from his view.
There was a shuffle of feet near the door to his study and Tomkin gave the candlemaker a short nod before opening his ledger and lifting his quill. “Good afternoon, sir. Your visit is timely. The holding is running low on candles.” He glanced back at the records. “The price for a season’s worth is ninety silver?” He looked up.
The fact that Dorlow was a candlemaker was so perfect, it almost made up for the fact he wasn’t a maiden in need of rescue. The man looked like he had been made of wax, then hung to dry and stretch until everything, from his eyes to his jowls to his fingers, were long and droopy. He hung back by the door of Tomkin’s study, wringing his hands, his fingers sliding and bending through each other in a way both mesmerizing and ghastly.
“Is there something wrong, sir?”
“M’lord.” The man bobbed a short bow. “I’m afraid the price is not the same as last spring. You see, m’lord, there was a great fire in the forest near my home…”
Tomkin nodded. “We know of the fire. We were told no homes were damaged.”
“No, sir, no homes. But the smoke, you see, sir, the smoke o’ the fire settled down in the vale. All the bees, in all the hollows, fled.” He clenched his hands together, his eyes anxious. “This is the last o’ my supply o’ candles, sir. I’m afraid I must raise my prices…” Dorlow’s gaze dropped to his hands. “…to a hundred fifty silver.”
Tomkin sat back. His mother was still annoyed he’d paid extra for that herd of cattle last month, even though the two bulls were bound to end up being worth the price. If he made another overly generous deal, she’d stick her nose back into his accounting. It had taken until his twentieth birthday to get her to leave it in his hands. He wasn’t going to ruin it before a full season had passed. Especially over candles.
The candlemaker stepped forward. “I know ya think that’s too high, sir. But I’ve searched the countryside. There aren’t no bees. I’ll need to travel to Southshire, or maybe as far as Greentree to find some.” He paused. “I can’t sell the candles to the common folk for the price I need, but I thought maybe you, sir, here at the holding…”
Tomkin tapped his quill on the paper. The candlemaker’s asking price was obscene. But Dorlow made the only decent candles in the area, and the holding was running low. The scales in this particular deal were tipped in Dorlow’s favor. His mind ran over the situation again. There was always a way to tip the scales. The holding needed candles. But what did a bee-less candlemaker need?
Tomkin bit back a smile at the most obvious question he’d ever asked himself. “My mother’s gardens have a problem. Instead of the normal number of bees, which she insists are good for her plants—”
“Oh, they are, sir,” Dorlow interrupted. “Bees’d be the reason her garden is so lovely. I saw one.” He leaned forward. “The duchess has southern mint bees! They make rich, dark honey. And their tongues—” He raised one eyebrow for emphasis. “—are unusually long.”
Tomkin tried not to grimace.
Dorlow settled back on his heels. “Real beauties, those mints.”
Tomkin felt the scales begin to shift. “Recently a second hive has formed and the far corner of the garden is overrun with bees.” He had been putting off dealing with the bee problem every day since his mother had left. “If you, sir, were willing to remove one of the hives, my mother would be deeply grateful. The bees would be yours to keep.”
The candlemaker’s entire face lifted at the news. “A hive o’ long-tongued mints! Thank ya, sir! ’Tis a kingly gift!” He bent into a droopy bow. “Kingly!”
The scales clinked down on Tomkin’s side. “Not a gift. Consider it partial payment. Ninety silver plus a hive of southern mint bees.”
“Agreed!” Dorlow rubbed his waxy fingers together so quickly Tomkin was afraid they might catch fire.
The candlemaker hurried off, and Tomkin added a note to the list of things to tell his mother when she returned tomorrow.
…The candlemaker skipped away to remove the hive and our intrepid hero relaxed after a battle well fought, pleased the holding would be lit with the glow of candles and the gardens would have fewer long-tongued beasts. Tomkin finished with a flourish, smiling at the smooth line. Few things in life were more satisfying than writing with a good quill.
Life was one story after another. Some stories just needed a little help to make them interesting.
If Marshwell were an important duchy, or close to any important part of the world, the problems people brought to him might provide good stories all on their own. Tales of pirates or monsters or evil wizards. But instead, Marshwell was tucked away on the southern border of Queensland, and though it was one of the largest duchies, it was filled with peaceful hills and homey folk. Not far enough south to have exotic seas. Not far enough north to have perilous mountains. It was the sort of place a hero might pass through on a great quest, but only to find a safe night’s rest in a comfortable barn.
Tomkin picked the map up off the pile of soldiers’ reports and tilted it toward the window. He squinted to read the faded, spidery writing. The map showed a large, bean-shaped island in the Southern Sea. The isle was nameless besides the notation “Territory of Marshwell.”
The sheer oddness of the map was pleasing. How did Marshwell, with the entire country of Coastal Baylon between it and the sea, own an island? Of course, the island was fairly Marshwellian: one lone volcano, surrounded by an unbroken expanse of grassy plains, and inhabited exclusively by a breed of hairless sheep.
What was the point of hairless sheep? If there was ever a place in need of a good story, it was this one. Tomkin let the map fall to the desk. It was a shame it wasn’t a good island. One with sinister ruins. Or maybe an ogre. That would be better than the Isle of Bald Sheep.
The door to the hall opened. “A messenger from the Duchy of Greentree,” announced the page.
A man with a squinty sort of face, pale skin, and lips thin as knife blades stepped in. He wore a green vest emblazoned with a silver tree.
“Good morning,” Tomkin said, nodding politely. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d had correspondence from Greentree.
The messenger looked around the room, as though searching for a more suitable person to address, before offering Tomkin a slight bow. “The Lord of Greentree sends his personal reply to the Duke of Marshwell.” The messenger glanced around again.
“The duke is my father,” Tomkin said, holding his hand out.
The messenger, with obvious reluctance, held out a letter sealed with bright green wax and stamped with a tree. The man looked like a villain. Not a diabolical one—just the sort of minor henchman who delighted in piling discomfort and delays upon the hero. And probably enough paperwork to drown him.
Tomkin took the letter and considered it for a moment. It was addressed to his father, but the duke was at the border. And Tomkin’s mother wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.
He slipped his fingernail under the edge of the seal. “Is the letter urgent?”
The man’s lipless mouth drew down into a frown. “I do not know.” He sniffed. “I do not read letters not addressed to me.”
The man was definitely a villain. But heroes didn’t ignore their duty just because a minor foe disapproved. Tomkin gave the man a sour smile and broke the seal. He unfolded the letter, and his attention snagged on his own name.
I have considered your proposal and agree a marriage between your son Tomkin and my daughter Lissa would be mutually beneficial.
Tomkin’s mind slammed into the words and reeled back.
Lissa of Greentree? He was betrothed to Dragon-Lady Lissa?
No one had mentioned him marrying anyone, never mind a girl whose temper was legendary.
I agree the escalations from Coastal Baylon are troubling, and a united front on our side would serve to give them pause.
Lissa is a flame of joy in my life, even more so after our family’s recent tragedy.
Flame of joy? By all accounts, she was a terror. Tomkin had never had the misfortune to meet her, but her reputation was enough. Rumor was her servants were terrified of her, and even Princess Ellona hated her. Tomkin couldn’t remember exactly why, but he was sure it was true. Everyone said so.
Tomkin had seen Princess Ellona once, from a distance, when he had gone to Queenstown with his mother. She looked the way he’d always imagined an elf might: like a sparkle of light, even amongst the glitter of the court.
His father needed to find him a bride like the princess. Not Lissa.
I have heard of your son’s quick mind. It is an honor to him, and to yourself, that he is able to carry so much responsibility in your holding.
As our children are of similar ages, I believe they have as fair a chance at happiness as any of us do. May their marriage be as companionable and fulfilling as yours, and as the one I enjoyed for so many years.
Yours in hope of a long and beneficial partnership,
Lord Norton of Greentree
Companionable and fulfilling?
No, no, no.
Marriage to a girl as unpleasant as Lissa of Greentree would be torture.
The messenger cleared his throat. Tomkin looked up and caught a smirk before the man tucked it away into his weedy face. Villain.
“Marshwell does not have an answer for Lord Norton today,” Tomkin said curtly.
The messenger bowed and left. Tomkin glared at his back until the door shut behind him.
“But we will have an answer.” Tomkin glowered at the door. His voice echoed back, weak and petulant. Tomkin tapped his quill against the letter.
If his father were set on a match with Greentree, let Elton marry Lissa.
His father wouldn’t do that, though. The truth was, if the duke was interested in an alliance with a duchy no more important than Marshwell, Tomkin was the obvious choice. Because Tomkin was the least valuable.
Something in his chest shriveled a little. It was true, of course. Elton had earned fame in battles with Coastal Baylon. Tomkin, younger, smaller and untrained in combat, was left to trade bees for candles. But that was hardly Tomkin’s fault. If his father, brother, or any of the fighting men had been around for most of Tomkin’s life, someone would have taught him to fight and he’d be on the border with the soldiers, claiming victory and glory.
Still, he had to be worth more than this.
Tomkin tapped his quill harder on the paper. He’d just prove he was valuable enough to marry anyone—even Princess Ellona herself.
With a sharp crack, the tip of Tomkin’s favorite quill broke off. A droplet of ink slid out of the jagged end, spreading into a large, black blot. Tomkin let the ruined quill fall onto the letter and dropped his head into his hands.
Bees and candles weren’t going to win him glory. There was nothing heroic about negotiating. He needed something big, something worthy of a story. He needed something even his fearless brother had never done. He needed something—
The door burst open and Tomkin’s head snapped up. A huge, wide-eyed man rushed.
“Dragon!” the man gasped. “Dragon!”
A claw of fear clamped down on Tomkin’s heart at the man’s stark terror.
Well…yes, a small voice in his head said, something like a dragon.