Saturday, May 21, 2011

1sr Chapter Saturday -- The Amber Dragon

Written for a Jewels of the Quill anthology, this is one of my favorite stories in the Amber Chronicles.

{The Amber Chronicles, Book 3}

by Janet Lane Walters (Dame Amber)

A tale from the days of the onset of the curse on the Riva family and the entrance of the first prince into the world of the amber globe.

Chapter 1

Stephen Riva, crown prince of Rivand, stared at the Witch of the Woods. With her hair the color of spun gold and eyes the brilliant blue of summer skies, her beauty fascinated him. But the words she spoke made him uneasy. He frowned and turned toward his father. The king glared at the woman.

The witch pointed a finger at the king. “You have not won. Fire will not destroy the garden or drive me from the home I have created.” She spun and waved her hands. All traces of the fire set by the king and his men vanished. She grasped Stephen’s hand and pulled him into the garden. “I love you. Will you love me in return?”

He shook his head. “How can you speak of love? Love does not strike in an instant and set a heart on fire. Love grows like a flower from a seed, planted and carefully tended.”

A dreamy expression appeared on her lovely face. “The moment I beheld you I knew you were mine. Your dark hair, your handsome face and your muscular body have enchanted me. I could drown in your moss green eyes.”

Stephen shook his head. In all his twenty and one years, he had never heard such nonsense. “You will not have me. I have a duty to Rivand, the land I will one day rule.”

“Do you have brothers?”


“Then one of them can take on your duty to the land. You have no reason to reject my love.”

Stephen shook his head. “There are three reasons. Duty, honor and love. My duty as crown prince of Rivand is to take the throne. Should I run away from doing this, I would lose honor. I do not love you.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So be it. If you will not be mine, you will not be Rivand’s king. A curse I lay upon the House of Riva. Every hundred years a prince will be given a chance. Accept my love and give his heart in return for mine, or be taken into the amber orb and spend his life in another world.”

Stephen looked at her. “I pray one day you will learn love does not happen in an instant and cannot be given on command.”

She smiled. “And you may learn love can occur in an instant and become eternal.”

Though there were no clouds, thunder rumbled. A streak of lightning flashed across the sky and struck the ground near Stephen’s feet. He saw the sparks coalesce into a sphere imprisoning him behind the walls. Stephen stretched his arms toward his father and the Witch of the Woods. The walls of the orb were too distant to touch. He turned and stared at a mass of trees.

The rustling leaves became voices urging him to walk. His strides lengthened until he ran. Was this a dream? The branches of the trees scratched his face and arms. He groaned. Truly he had been brought to another place.

Stephen had no idea how long he walked. The clusters of trees thinned. Beyond them he saw a road and some distant buildings. Before stepping onto the hard-packed earth he removed his coronet, his sword and most of his jewelry. As a stranger in an unknown land he dare not appear hostile. He wrapped his possessions in his cloak and hid them in a hollow tree. With his boot knife he marked the spot. Then he stepped onto the road and sought his new destiny.

* * * *

Princess Valia stared at the seventeenth prince who had come to Lanton to court her. Since the day her father had decreed she must marry, every available prince from the neighboring kingdoms had arrived at the palace. This young man was her last possible choice for a spouse.

He was handsome. The way he preened like a peacock meant he knew about his looks. He acted as though his willingness to wed her was a gift and her acceptance a given.

Valia scowled. How dare he think she had no other choice? How dare he ignore her? She was tired of hearing about his skill with a sword and of the many maidens who desired him.

There had been no praise of her eyes, the blue of summer skies. He had sung no odes to her amber-colored hair. No poems had been written about her delicate features or her perfect figure. The entire conversation had centered on him. She had not been able to steer him in her direction.

She rose and flicked away the hand extended to assist her. “Prince Hogen, I refuse your offer of marriage. You are but a third son and your conversation and manners are tedious. Your pale hair and eyes do little to compliment my beauty. Go home, for you have failed the test I set for the man I would wed.”

“And that might be?” His voice held a haughty tone.

“To think of me and not of yourself.” She turned and saw a fierce scowl on her father’s face. The wizard stood at the king’s side. He smiled, and his expression caused a chill to slither along her spine. Why was the man pleased by her decision?

The scorned prince halted at the door. “You will go to your grave a spinster. I am the last of the available princes. I will give you another chance to say you will wed me.”

Valia laughed. “I have no need of another chance. Be gone.”

When the door closed with a bang, Valia saw her father’s scowl had deepened. Though he stood at a distance, she sensed his anger. His boots clicked on the marble squares of the floor. At the king’s side, the wizard appeared to glide.

“Daughter, what am I going to do with you? Hogen was the last of the princes available for you to wed.” The king’s gaze sparked with anger.

Valia smiled. “Father, do you think I am beautiful?”

“That has nothing to do with your need for marriage. You must beg one of the princes to return. Surely there is one who is less offensive than the others. I must have time to train my successor to rule when I am gone.”

Valia’s heart skipped a beat. “Do not think that way. You are only of middle age.”

“I must consider the future. Lanton must have a strong ruler. Since you cannot choose, I will.”

“Father, no.” Valia’s hands rested on her hips. “I refuse to marry a man who can say nothing about my beauty. I will gladly wed one who adores me. He can take on the boring chores of a king and leave me time to spend maintaining my beauty. I will not wed a man who wants me to worship him.”

The king turned to the wizard. “Do something. Cast a spell to make her change from the vain and selfish woman she has become.”

The wizard smiled slyly. “Sire, I can devise a spell but you might not be willing to pay the price.”

“Gold, silver and jewels will be yours. I will gladly pay you to create a spell.”

Valia stared at them. “Have I no say?”

The king shook his head. “You will do what must be done. Wizard, you will have what you desire. I must have a son to rule when I grow old.”

“As you command, Sire.”

Valia tried to scurry toward the door, but her father grasped her arm. “My child, you must wed before another year passes. You have reached your twentieth year.”

She did not trust the wizard and had no idea why she felt this distrust. “Why must you be this way? Am I not your greatest treasure?”

“You are, and there must be a strong man to guard you when I no longer can.”

The wizard stood on her other side. “The spell I will cast would best be done in the garden.”

A chill rolled along her arms. Though Valia wanted to flee, she would not let this man know she feared him. She walked between the men to the garden. A breeze carried the scent of summer flowers. Chimes in the trees produced a sweet song. With a wave of his hand, her father sent the guards and gardeners away.

A strange lethargy stole over Valia. She sank onto a garden bench. Her father sat on another one. The wizard spoke quietly. Her father’s eyes closed. When Valia tried to rise, she could not move. She called to her father, but he failed to answer.

The wizard approached her bench. His midnight blue robe swirled around his ankles. As he raised his arms, the wide sleeves billowed. He held a wand. “Sire, do you agree to the terms I set?”

“I do.” The king’s voice sounded as though he stood at a great distance.

Valia frowned. What were the terms and what did they mean for her? Should not she be the one to accept or refuse? She opened her mouth. No sound emerged. Again she tried with the same result. Where once she had dismissed the wizard as a fool, she now knew he was evil. Fear washed through her.

The wizard chanted strange sounding words. He walked three times in a clockwise and three times counter around the bench. The seventh circuit followed the clock.

Valia felt as though the bench formed a cage to keep her in place. Images of becoming a marble statue for the duration of the spell brought fear. How could she fulfill her father’s demand to wed if she remained an unmoving figure seated on a bench?

The wizard faced her. He waved his wand from side to side. Her gaze followed. His gibberish changed to words she understood. They unnerved her:

“For seven weeks this new form will be yours. There is but one chance to escape your fate. If you find a prince and convince him to kiss you, you will return to your own shape. To do this, you will have a single word. The first one you utter to another will be all you can say. If seven weeks pass and you have not found a prince, you will become my smiling, silent bride.”

Valia wanted to protest. She had no desire to be the wizard’s wife. She looked at her father. He appeared to be asleep. Had the wizard cast a spell on the king?

The wizard’s wand twirled faster until Valia could no longer see the gem at the tip. The sight transfixed her. “Seven times seven,” the wizard shouted. “The spell is complete.”

The lethargy Valia had felt vanished. She stared at the sky. The sun touched the horizon. Soon darkness would come. She rose and nearly fell. Putting her front paws on the ground, she lumbered to the garden pool.

Valia stared in trepidation at the water. Though the sunlight faded, she could see her image. A scream built and was swallowed when she remembered what the wizard had said. Her first and only word could not be a “No” cried in anguish, anger and despair. She leaned forward for another look. Nothing had changed. She was still a five foot tall amber dragon instead of a beautiful princess.

Ugly. Where she had been the most beautiful woman in the kingdom and all the surrounding ones, she was now ugly enough to scare people.

Her father and the wizard were gone. She crept beneath a weeping cherry tree and huddled under the drooping branches. Nothing could change her back. Except a prince. She had to find one, and there were just seven weeks for the search. If she failed, she would become the wizard’s bride. His silent bride. That fate terrified her. Valia rested her head on her front paws. Where was she going to find a prince? A few tears trickled from her eyes.

Night arrived. The moon rose. Valia’s stomach rumbled. She had to leave the palace. No prince would be found if she remained here. First she needed to find food to satisfy her hunger.

Valia made her way to the rear of the palace where the kitchen and the storehouses were located. With her foreclaws, she shredded the wooden door of one of the buildings. The odor of raw meat made her ill. She could not eat that. She moved to a second building and found smoked hams on a shelf. She ate a half dozen. After shattering a barrel of dried fish, she ate her fill. Hanging from hooks she saw rings of sausages and managed to drape one around her neck.

With caution she crept to the garden gate and smashed the wooden barrier. She left the palace grounds. As she wandered away, she thought about the wizard. He would be surprised at her flight from the place where she would have been cared for. He would prefer she stayed, so she would have to marry him. But if she wanted to find a prince she had to search.

* * * *

Stephen scraped the plates he had gathered from the tables in the main room of the Forest Edge Inn. Two weeks had passed since his abrupt arrival in this land. He stared at his hands, roughened by the hot soapy dishwater. Was this the way a prince should spend his days? Was he in fact still a prince? Working as a lowly servant was his present lot.

With a groan he returned to the chore. He dipped pewter plates into a pan, scrubbed away the dried food, dipped them in cold water and set them to dry. The last of the mid-day diners had left. When he finished, Stephen joined the other kitchen workers at a long table and filled a plate with food.

The innkeeper strolled into the kitchen. He gave each man their weekly payment. Stephen stared at the copper coins. How long would it take to accumulate enough to buy a horse? If he had one, he could hire on as a caravan guard. When he reached a large town he could sell his rings and chains. Forest Edge was too small to take the risk of selling them here. No one knew him as anyone other than a man who had wandered into the village seeking work. Stephen had no intention of being thought of as a thief.

Conversation buzzed around him. “She is missing. The king is said to be in mourning.”

“Who?” Stephen asked.

“The king’s daughter refused yet another prince. She vanished. He has no other child and refuses to marry again.”

“What will he do?” one of the cooks asked.

The innkeeper shrugged. “He might adopt one of the many princes who were suitors for her hand.”

Stephen wanted to tell these men he was a prince. He stared at his red rough hands. As if anyone would believe him. He finished his meal, grabbed a broom and a rag and went to wipe the tables and sweep the floors in the main room of the inn.

That evening a caravan arrived. As Stephen cleared platters from a nearby table, he listened to the men’s conversation. Before long a crowd had gathered to hear the traders’ tale.

“There is a dragon terrifying the countryside,” one of the drivers said.

“Dragons belong in the north,” a villager said.

“Sure and they do. This dragon is a strange beast,” the master trader said. “Has a hide the color of the finest amber, not the usual brown or black.”

The first speaker reached for a tankard. “Odd in other ways, too. This creature does not fly or spit fire.”

The head trader leaned forward. “Heard a wild tale about this dragon. Beast seems to be mute. Turned thief awhile back. A group of farmers were roasting a steer for a wedding feast. Dragon invaded the farm. Ate most of the steer and dragged the rest away.”

The gathering of men laughed.

“’Tis true,” the wagon driver said.

Stephen frowned. In Rivand, dragons belonged to tales told at night to frighten children into obeying. He lingered near the table until the crowd dispersed. “I have never seen a dragon. Are they dangerous?”

One of the men looked up. “Can be but they seldom come down from the mountains. As we said, this beast is truly odd.”

“What do you mean?”

“Farmers and villagers seek to appease the creature. They leave raw meat, but the dragon refuses to eat what is left.”

Stephen frowned. “What does the beast eat?”

The trader shrugged. “We do not know but there have been reports of the beast invading camps and eating the roasting meat. The creature is a problem and must be chased to its natural place or the caravans will suffer. Men want cooked meat when on the trail. If the guards cannot depend on being fed, they will not hire on.”

“Where is this dragon now?”

“The last sighting was on the road miles to the east. You are thinking about chasing the dragon?”

“I might.”

The trader laughed. “Good luck.”

Stephen cleared the tables and lugged a full tray to the kitchen. He knew what he would do. He would retrieve his sword, jewels and coronet. With the money he had earned here, he would buy supplies. He would find and slay the dragon. That would make him a hero. A hero was almost as good as being a prince.

1 comment:

Kathy Sullivan said...

Very nice! Can't wait for more!