Knights of the Red Dragon (Ebook)
Knights of the Red Dragon (Ebook)
Soul Force Saga Bonus Novella
Al Elan is a street urchin just trying to survive in the back allies of Dragon’s Landing.
When he’s found to have the Breath of the Dragon, it’s his way out.
But life in the Red Dragon’s military academy isn’t an easy one. He’ll need to master his power quickly if he wants to survive.
Heat defined the Kingdom of the Red Dragon. Every day the sun hammered the people with its relentless fire. In the city of Dragon’s Landing, there was no mercy to be found at midday. Even the faint breeze did nothing but carry fine grit from the desert into the homes and businesses, coating everything and making the ladies sneeze.
Al Elan had no time to worry about heat or sand as he ran across the flat rooftops toward Dragon’s Way, the main street running the length of the city. His feet never paused long enough to burn. When he reached the edge of the building, he leapt across the gap, landing easily on the roof of the local rug merchant. The fine red and gold rugs covering the bare stone made a soft place to rest and watch the parade. He never missed the daily parade.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Al Elan found Hakam, his best friend in the world, standing at the edge of the first roof and studying the jump with fearful eyes. At thirteen, Hakam was a year younger than Al Elan, though he looked nearer to ten than his true age.
Nothing like starvation to make you puny. Living on the streets wasn’t an easy life, but Al Elan did his best to make sure Hakam and the other urchins got what they needed to survive.
“Come on,” Al Elan said. “If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss it.”
“I don’t think I can make it,” Hakam said.
“You always say that and you always make it. Take a running start like I showed you and get down here.”
The distant stomping of boots reached him a moment before he spotted the cloud of dust. A couple more minutes and they’d be in sight.
Hakam had backed up as far as possible. Al Elan looked back. The dust was getting closer.
“Ahhh!” Hakam leapt from the roof, soared across the gap and landed amidst the rugs with three feet to spare.
“See, told you so. Come on.”
The boys ran to the opposite edge of the roof just as the column of dragon soldiers came marching into sight. The foot soldiers wore red lamellar armor that covered them to midthigh and carried long spears, their razor-sharp tips gleaming in the brutal sun. Behind them came the archers with their curved bows and wicked, barbed arrows.
The hundreds of ordinary soldiers made an impressive sight, but they didn’t interest Al Elan. His gaze lingered on the final group, the Knights of the Red Dragon, with their crimson scale armor and thin, curved swords. Each of them carried weapons valuable enough to feed Al Elan and his fellows for a year. How much wealth must they have to afford such things? In three months, he’d turn fifteen, old enough to enlist.
“Just think, Hakam,” Al Elan said as the last of the parade passed by. “When I’m a knight, I’ll be able to buy everyone all the food they can eat. New clothes too.”
He gave Hakam’s threadbare tunic a playful tug, drawing an annoyed snort from his young friend. “You think it’ll be that easy?”
“No, I don’t think it’ll be easy, but I intend to do it all the same. It’s either that or go from starving kids to starving adults. Unless you’ve come up with a plan to take care of everyone.”
Hakam’s lips twisted and Al Elan immediately regretted what he’d said. He knew his young friend didn’t want him to leave. In truth, Al Elan didn’t want to leave the others, but if he didn’t, eventually his little family would get into serious trouble. It was only a matter of time before one of the gangs of grownups started making demands of them, especially the mother of the group, Iya. She was Al Elan’s age and well on her way to becoming a true beauty. He’d do anything to keep her out of Whore’s Alley.
Al Elan spun away from the street. Three more months, but for now, he needed to rustle up something to bring the others for dinner. Where should they try today? Amed the baker was usually good for a heel or two of bread. Maybe some partially spoiled fruit from the bazaar. What they really needed was goat’s milk, but he had no idea where they might find some.
“Ready, pal?” he asked.
Hakam nodded and they climbed down three stories to the street, the rough stone of the building offering easy handholds for their nimble fingers. Their errands took them all across the city and by the time they finished the sun hung low in the sky. Despite the four hours it had taken, they’d collected some good food, including a string of burnt sausages that still had a little good meat in the centers. That would be a rare treat.
“What do you suppose Iya will fix with our goodies?” Al Elan asked, his mouth watering.
“She’ll put it all in the pot in hopes of stretching it as much as she can, same as she does every night. Every night we have food anyway.”
They turned down a narrow path through the hovels that filled the slums they called home. Some of the tiny shacks were home to whole families. He didn’t know how they managed. Al Elan’s group lived in a partially collapsed church. It wasn’t the best when one of the rare rain storms hit, but that happened so seldom no one worried about it.
Al Elan rounded the final bend to the church and stopped dead. Hakam had his head down muttering about dinner and didn’t notice the two strangers standing near the entrance. The men were well known in this part of the city, at least among the slum dwellers. They worked as leg breakers for Morgani One-Eye.
He grabbed Hakam and pulled him back out of sight. “What are—”
Al Elan pressed a finger to his lips, cutting his friend off in midcomplaint. “Morgani’s at the church again. We need to go in the back way.”
Hakam’s eyes were as big as saucers. “What’s he doing here?”
“There’s only one possibility. I hope Iya isn’t back from the dress shop yet.”
“You think he’s come to take her?”
The only thing Hakam feared more than Al Elan joining the army was Iya having to work for Morgani. He knew just how his friend felt. If the whore master got his claws into her, Iya would never be the same. She wouldn’t be their Iya anymore.
“Not if I can help it,” Al Elan said.
Who was he kidding? He could brawl with the boys his age when it came down to it, but Morgani had a sword and wasn’t afraid to use it. He also had a dozen men and five times that many informants. If they went against him, there was nowhere they could hide, not in the slums anyway.
Al Elan led the way around to the back of the church. It looked like the rear wall had totally collapsed, but there was a narrow passage through the rubble the kids could squeeze through if they had to. He pulled aside the broken board that hid the entrance and motioned Hakam through first. It was a tight fit for Al Elan now and he didn’t want to get stuck with Hakam behind him.
They crawled through the dark and Al Elan winced at every crunch and grunt as he forced his too-broad shoulders through the tight passage. He was starting to wonder if they would ever reach the far end when Hakam’s butt vanished and a circle of light appeared.
Finally. He pulled himself out beside his friend and they crawled through yet more rubble until they reached a vantage point that let them see down into the main chapel. Morgani stood with one of his men surrounded by the younger kids. Bright, multicolored silks almost painful to look at draped his broad, muscular form. A patch covered with crushed sapphires rode over his left eye.
No sign of Iya, thank the great dragon.
“One day, my young friends,” Morgani said, “you will come to work for me. Won’t that be glorious? No more scrounging for food or sheltering in this broken heap of a church. You’re all still a bit small to be of much use, but you’ll grow. Yes, indeed you will. But for now you can serve me best by telling me where Iya is hiding herself. I’m sure she’s about somewhere. Speak up, where is she?”
When no one spoke Morgani roared. “Where is she?”
The youngest of the company, a little girl they all called Kitten, broke into tears. Al Elan feared Morgani might hit her, but he seemed content to ignore her. One of the others, he couldn’t make out who from where they hid, pulled Kitten into his lap and calmed her.
“She’s still at work, sir,” Tal said. “Iya got a job at a dress shop so she could get cloth to make us new clothes. She works until it closes then cleans up. It might be awhile before she gets home.”
Morgani’s anger vanished as quickly as it appeared. “That was easy enough, wasn’t it? Which shop?”
“The small one near the parrot man,” Tal said.
“I know the fellow well. Until we meet again, children.” Morgani tossed a bag filled with strips of dried meat on the ground and led his man out.
Al Elan grimaced. He didn’t blame Tal for talking, but he wished the boy had lied. Now it was a race, one he didn’t dare lose.
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