Dragon Tongue Excerpt
The flames of the forge swirled together in their usual dance, mixing hues of marigold, apricot, ochre, and cardinal as they twisted and billowed above a bed of glowing embers.
Cora Hart had always looked upon the blaze with respect, an awe that never ceased after seeing countless pieces of metal bend to its will. But tonight, as the smoke from the flames filled both the small room and her Papa’s lungs, it wasn’t respect bubbling in Cora’s gut. It was worry.
She tried not to let it consume her as she moved about the forge, carrying out her daily duties, but worry, like a splinter, grew more troublesome the longer it lingered.
Every cough that erupted from her father’s lips sounded raspier than the last, and the accompanying wheezing made each inhale and exhale seem like a chore. Papa should be in bed, resting, not spending every possible hour in the forge. But Viren Hart was as stubborn as the metals he’d devoted his life to—it would take more than a cough to make him yield.
Sighing, Cora replenished the bin of charcoal next to the hearth, refilled the basin of sand used to quench molten metal, and made sure the necessary tongs and stakes were ready and within her father’s reach.
“If only it were as easy to pound some sense into his head,” she grumbled as she watched Viren work, her voice barely carrying over the crackling flames and the rhythmic pinging of Papa’s hammer against a piece of steel.
“What was that?” Viren looked up from the sword he was making and eyed his daughter. Despite his declining health, it appeared his hearing was as sharp as ever.
“Nothing,” Cora responded quickly, swiping a strand of brown hair off her sweaty neck. “Just doing my chores.”
“Oh, but I know that face, little lark, and I can tell that something is troubling you.” Viren smiled, setting his tools down on the anvil. “You can talk to me about it, if you like.”
Cora softened a little at his smile and the use of the pet name he’d given her as a child, but she knew that sharing her concerns likely wouldn’t do any good. They’d had the conversation before, and it had always ended the same way. Still, she had to try. “Papa, I’m seventeen now. I want to do more than stock the forge and hand you tools. I think it’s time you let me help you with the orders. You’ve been unwell, and you’re getting older. I really think I—
Viren held up a hand. “Did you just call me an old man?” The crinkles around his eyes deepened as he laughed. “I’m not so decrepit as you think, Cora Hart. I’m well enough.” And as if to prove his point, he lifted his hammer again and began to pummel the steel in strong, practiced strokes.
Cora watched him, unamused. He was always making light of things when it came to his troubles—never wanting to burden her by admitting when something was actually wrong. But Cora wasn’t a child anymore, and she noticed the way his shoulders seemed to bend inward more and more each day, the way the lines that creased his forehead deepened when he thought she wasn’t looking. And the coughing—a lingering side effect from a bad chest infection a few months ago—didn’t seem to be getting better, no doubt exacerbated by the smoke from the forge.
“Papa,” she tried again. “All I’m saying is that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Let me help you.”
Viren swung the hammer twice more before responding. “I can manage, lark. You just keep the charcoal and the sand coming, yeah?”
Cora pressed her lips together. Stubborn old man.
Viren had always been a hard worker, spending long hours in the forge filling orders for customers. When Cora’s mother had passed away six years ago, the amount of work he’d done had bordered on compulsive, with the forge becoming a place to escape his grief. But when he’d gotten sick a few months back, Viren hadn’t been able to work, and an order of weaponry, tools, and other supplies for the soldiers stationed at the garrison hadn’t been completed by the agreed upon delivery date. Viren had been fined for the late delivery, and ever since, he’d spent every waking hour trying to finally finish up the order and somehow make up for the ever-expanding pool of debt he and Cora now found themselves swimming in.
He’s going to work himself into the grave next to Mama. Cora frowned, moving to stoke the flames of the fire. But just as she picked up the poker, a familiar rattling sound filled the air and she whirled around. Viren was bent over the anvil, his entire body shaking as his lungs revolted against the smoke, sputtering and wheezing. This wasn’t one of his sporadic coughs, but one of the more serious episodes where he couldn’t catch his breath, his lungs puckering against the smoke.
“Papa!” Cora tossed the poker and ran over to her father. Viren dropped his hammer and gasped for air as the coughing fit worsened. His face began to turn crimson, and Cora’s heart leapt in her throat as his knees gave way.
With her own breath catching, Cora began to pound on her father’s back with her palm, desperately trying to clear whatever gunk was blocking his airway. “It’s okay,” she said, trying to sound calmer than she felt. “It’s going to pass. Just try to breathe.”
Viren let out several more hacking coughs before finally gasping, his lungs filling with much-needed air. The rattling wheeze that followed each breath made her own shoulders tighten further with worry. Only a few seconds had passed, but it felt much longer. Tears pricked Cora’s eyes as she helped him over to a wooden stool in the corner. This wasn’t the first time a coughing fit had nearly caused Viren to pass out, and each time it happened, Cora was terrified he would stop breathing for good. So far, they’d been lucky. But she knew better than to count on luck.
“Here,” she said, handing him a glass of water from the shelf near the door. “Drink this.”
“Thank you,” Viren wheezed, his voice hoarse from his episode. He took a small sip from the cup and then another. “That one nearly got me.”
“It’s the smoke,” Cora answered, waving a hand in the air. “It’s not good for you. This is why you need to let me help you. You’ve been sick for months and you’re not getting better. It’s because you spend all your time in here. Your lungs can’t heal.”
“My lungs are—”
The rest of Viren’s sentence was swallowed by a loud shout outside the forge. Soon there were other voices too, calling out to each other. Cora couldn’t make out the specifics of what they were saying, but she could tell it was something more than friendly salutations between neighbors.
“Something’s wrong,” Viren rasped, already pushing himself up on unsteady feet.
“What do you think it could be?” Cora grabbed his arm, lending her support, and together they hurried over to the door. “A plague? Some kind of attack?”
“I don’t know, but I do not think whatever it is will be good news.”
Wiping a still-shaking hand on the front of her work apron, Cora lifted the latch that held the door of the forge shut. Outside, the small village of Barcroft was a flurry of activity. People were scurrying up the dusty path that led to the town center. Now that she was outside, Cora became aware of a strange keening noise rending the air.
Sara Bishop, the seamstress, scurried by then, her blonde braid swishing from side to side in the wind. “Sara,” Viren called out to her, pulling his arm away from Cora. “Sara, wait!”
Spinning so fast her skirts nearly tangled around her legs, Sara let out a breath. “Oh, Viren, have you heard?”
“No. We haven’t. We’ve been in the forge since dawn. What’s happened?”
“It’s awful,” Sara replied, pressing a hand to her chest. “There’s been a death.”
“By the stars,” Viren rubbed a palm down his face. “Who?”
Sara shook her head. “I’m not sure, exactly. But I heard it was one of the scale scavengers.”
Cora’s eyebrows lifted, and she couldn’t help interrupting to ask, “Was it a dragon attack?”
“I don’t know,” Sara admitted, “but I believe the body is being taken to the square.”
“We should head there now and see what we can do to help,” Viren said. Sara gave a nod of agreement and the two turned and began to head toward the center of town, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Cora followed awkwardly behind them.
Deaths in Barcroft were always serious, somber affairs. Given the township’s remote location in the Therma Mountains, the population was small, and everyone knew everyone else. A death here was felt by all.
Yet, as Cora shuffled after her father, a feeling of disconnect tugged at her senses. Aside from her papa, there wasn’t a single person in the village Cora felt real kinship with. The older she got, the more it seemed as if she were an outlander in the village. The deaths of her mother and grandmother, Nana Livi, hadn’t helped, as Cora’s defense mechanism for grief was withdrawal. She’d had a few acquaintances growing up, but never more than that. When she’d left the schoolhouse and entered the forge, she hadn’t missed them. And although she was happy during her time spent working alongside her father, there was a keen sense of loneliness that never really seemed to go away. Even in times like this, when tragedy seemingly brought everyone together, Cora still saw herself on the outskirts. Part of it, but not part of it at all. It was a strange feeling, and it made the loneliness that much more tangible.
The path leading into the center of the village filled with people, and more and more citizens ventured out of their homes and shops. As Cora stepped into the crowded square, the sound from earlier, the strange keening, grew in volume.
Cora pressed up onto her tiptoes, trying to see around the mass of bodies, and as she did so, she caught a glimpse of the source of the sound. It was a girl with thick red hair kneeling on the ground and wailing next to the body of a young man with the same fiery locks. Cora recognized them as the Barrett twins. They’d been schooled together as children, but like Cora, they’d always kept to themselves, seemingly content enough with each other not to bother with making friends. As they’d all gotten older and taken up their trades, Cora hadn’t thought much about the twins. Until now.
“It’s Niko Barrett,” she whispered to Viren, who stood stiffly beside her. “That’s his sister, Clara, beside him.” The young woman’s sobs filled the square as the rest of the villagers looked on, expressions of sympathy etched in the lines of their faces.
“What happened to the boy?” Viren asked those around him.
It was Brig, the tanner, who responded. “Word is he fell from a cliff. There was a cache of scales he was trying to get to and lost his grip. Died on impact.”
Cora winced, imagining the terror Niko must have felt as he plummeted to his death. She spent a lot of time in the mountains herself and knew well the dangers they posed. One misstep could mean losing your life—just as Niko had lost his. It was a tragic accident.
Glancing upward, Cora scanned the skies. Clara’s wails were so loud, she imagined even the dragons who hid in the deepest parts of the wilderness could hear them. She pictured them flying overhead, their curiosity getting the better of them. But there was no sign of the dragons. Occasionally, they did fly over the village, but it was rare, and Cora has never seen one up close—no one had except the scavengers, and they went out of their way to avoid the creatures as much as possible. Dragon scales were important, necessary. But the dragons themselves were another story.
As Clara continued to weep over the body of her brother, several of the villagers stepped forward to offer their condolences. The rest of the scale scavengers stood close by, grief swimming in their eyes. Several of them carried satchels, strung across their bodies, meant for carrying the scavenged scales of the dragons. Cora could just make out the shape of an iridescent, lemon-colored scale, sticking out of the top of one of the bags. Such a small thing—no bigger than the size of Papa’s hand—yet incredibly valuable. Even if they were terrifically dangerous to retrieve. Niko’s death proved that.
Cora eyed the troop of scavengers; she recognized them, of course, but she couldn’t recall all of their names. She’d seen them regularly enough, though, to know they were a tight group and the death of one of their own would no doubt be felt keenly by more than just Clara. She envied them a little for that, for the bond between them. Niko’s death was an awful tragedy, but they still had each other. There was probably some comfort in that, at least.
“Make way!” A loud, gruff voice called out over the sympathetic murmuring of the crowd. “Let us pass!” The words were like a bucket of cold water to a flame, dousing the warm sympathy and unity in the square and covering all those gathered within it in a palpable wave of tension.
“Oh great,” Cora groaned, recognizing the voice. They all did. “The malhos are here.”
Malhos. It was the name given to those whose family lines were not native to Tenegard but to Athelia, King Onyx’s homeland. It was said that Onyx, having grown tired of fighting a civil war for power within his own country, decided to head south to Tenegard, a land that was stricken by famine. Onyx, a man with strange and powerful magical abilities—including an exceptionally long life span—saved the land and its people, the genante. However, as with everything, aid from Onyx the Deathess—or so he began to be called—came with a price. He crowned himself king of Tenegard and opened its borders to the malhos, a people who cared little for the genante’s way of life and deeply resented the less-than-warm welcome they received. It had all happened long ago, before even Nana Livi was born, but the genante’s resentment and dislike for the malhos remained. Tension between the two groups had slightly eased over the years, but trust was something that was earned, and in Cora’s opinion, the malhos and their selfish nature couldn’t be trusted.
“Mind your tongue, girl,” Viren hissed, elbowing her in the side. “Lest you draw attention to yourself.”
Cora didn’t say another word, but as a tall, sneering man with narrowed eyes and a thick black cloak around his shoulders pushed through the crowd, flanked by two soldiers from the garrison, heat rushed through her body, and she automatically clenched her fists.
Captain Daggett strode forward, one hand resting on the blade at his waist, the other stroking the thin line of hair that traced his jawline.
“What’s this?” he demanded.
Dragon Tongue (Rise of the Drago Riders #1) will be publish on December 27th.