Dragon’s Curse, The Dragon and the Scholar Book One
The Dragon and the Scholar Book 1
On her first assignment out of the Academy, young healer and scholar, Shannon Macaulay is summoned to the struggling kingdom of Regone to see to the wounds of a young but crippled king. When the unwanted attentions of an aggressive knight and the sudden appearance of a hated dragon turn her world upside down, she decides to take matters into her own hands even if doing so proves dangerous.
Finding herself strangely drawn to the company of the dragon, Gnaw, Shannon must force herself out of her safe world of books and botany to come to the aid of her unexpected ally in a strange kingdom, cursed by a fateful encounter with a dragon and the loss of a beloved prince. Can she learn to put aside her fears, and perhaps sacrifice her deepest desires, to help a friend and restore a family?
The Scholar and the Dragon
The Scholar and the Dragon
The slate gray dragon crouched at the edge of the cliff, his wings flattened against his sleek torso and his long slender neck pressed to the ground. Shadows darkened the narrow ravine below his perch. He could smell the appetizing aroma of fat, sleepy sheep and hear their gentle bleating as the shepherd approached.
The drake had not eaten in several days, and while nothing would suit him more than a meal of fresh mutton, he had other concerns today. He had watched dozens of travelers take the pass between Grassel and Regone over the last month, but most came in large groups or were well armed. This shepherd was alone.
The narrow roadway flooded with sheep. Their wooly backs stretched from wall to wall.
The shepherd and his dog urged the livestock along the path. The dragon drew a deep breath, arched his neck, flapped his wings, and dove.
The shaggy black sheepdog barked sharply at the dragon’s descent but too late to warn his master. The dragon grasped the man in his bird like talons and swept him into the sky. Lambs scattered every which way and the dog’s yapping grew frantic.
The great winged beast dropped the man on a rocky ledge far above the canyon floor where he rolled about, gasping and shivering. He tried to scramble away, lost his footing, and fell from the cliff. The dragon swiftly struck out. He bit into the man’s shirt, arresting his fall, and pulled him back to safety. The fellow jerked about like a fly in a spider’s web for several minutes before going limp.
The dragon lowered him back to the earth.
“Now that you have realized you cannot fly, perhaps we can talk,” he said.
The man stared up at him, wide-eyed. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“You aren’t going to eat me?”
“If you answer my questions honestly, no. There shouldn’t be any need for that, though I wouldn’t mind one of your herd for a quick snack.” The dragon’s long tongue darted out and in. “You come from Regone?”
“The king, Ernest, is he well?”
“Ernest is no longer king of Regone.”
The monster drew his head back and up like a snake posed to strike and the man crumpled to his knees.
“What became of Ernest?” the dragon hissed.
The shepherd’s body shuddered. “He died, natural causes, almost a year ago.”
“Then the dragon-hunter now rules?”
“Dragon-hunter? Prince Edmond? Yes, he has ascended to the throne.”
The creature stretched out his wings. “All right, I have heard enough. I shall return you to your flock, but you must speak of this to no one.”
The man nodded and did not cry out when the dragon snatched him up and plummeted into the ravine. The gray drake deposited his prisoner on the ground, dodged an attack from the panicked sheep dog, and nabbed a fat ewe before streaking into the sky.
He came to rest on a plateau and tore into the animal’s carcass, swallowing great chunks of savory meat.
It is time to decide: settle the score or forget and move on.
He turned his eyes back to the horizon. To the west low, green foothills stretched out for miles, to the south lay near impassable mountains filled with freedom and peace.
“Not yet, but soon,” the dragon whispered. Leaving his meal unfinished he launched himself towards the craggy blue peaks of the Middland range, his path ripping apart the clouds like paper.
Shannon hurried down the corridor, her skin crisscrossed by the shadows the sun cast through the diamond panes of the glass windows. Her fine, dark blonde hair slipped out of its braid and into her face. Frustrated, she pushed it back and sniffed.
She knew she looked like a child, especially when flustered. Shannon’s brown eyes were too big for her round face, her hands too small for her arms, and her hair and garments always disheveled. People underestimated her, but this was Martin. Martin should know better. They had worked together on numerous projects and though, as the older more experienced scholar, he had always been her superior, she had thought she had proven herself to him. Numerous times.
Now, a few months into his promotion to Headmaster’s Assistant, he had apparently forgotten her. Worse than forgotten, ignored, for she had written him two notes which he had either disregarded or flat out not read. She had assumed he was simply taking his time, but then a chance encounter with a fellow junior scholar had revealed the full extent of the betrayal and left her livid.
She hated confrontation, but Martin needed to know he was making a mistake. Shannon assured herself of this as she stormed through the Academy’s echoing halls. Her boots slapped out a rhythm of it’s unfair; he should’ve come to me first. It’s unfair. He should’ve. It’s unfair.
She wasn’t good at being angry. It simply didn’t come naturally to her, and if she were going to assume an air of righteous indignation she would need to work herself up and keep herself there. If she were incensed enough he’d have to listen. He’d have to see how serious she was.
She threw open the door to his study. Martin sat behind his heavy wooden desk, hunched over some papers, quill in hand. He looked up, eyebrows raised, when she barged in.
“Shannon? Is something wrong?” he asked, his clear blue eyes widening.
“Yes, something is wrong!” she burst out. Her voice squeaked. She swallowed and considered adjusting it. Even she couldn’t take that voice seriously.
I sound like a six-year-old.
She cleared her throat and began again. “I just talked to Henri in the library. He told me you put him on the shortlist for the assignment in Regone. I didn’t know you were even interviewing candidates yet, and Henri has already had two interviews. I’m twice as qualified as Henri, Martin! This is because I’m a woman, isn’t it? I know the headmaster is old fashioned, but the choice is yours, not his.”
“No, that’s not it. Dame Allison is on the short list too.” He stuck the quill into the inkwell and leaned back in his seat.
She couldn’t help it. She gaped. Allison knew her alchemy. The woman was a walking reference library, but she had no imagination, no ambition. When it came to thinking out of the box, Shannon knew she could run circles around her.
“That only makes it worse, Martin.” She managed to control the pitch of her voice. “I’m a better alchemist than Allison and I know more botany than Henri. Why are they on the list when you never even interviewed me?”
“Do you even know what this assignment involves?” Martin’s wide mouth scowled at her.
“I saw the letter they sent to the headmaster.” She nodded, doing her best to come across as firm rather than shrill. “The Regonian king wants a scholar versed in alchemy, botany, and apothecary healing, and I was top of my class in all three. You know I want to leave the Academy. I need to leave. Why didn’t I make the list? I should’ve been the list.”
“Because it’s Regone!” he said, sounding unaccountably exasperated.
She blinked at him.
He drew a deep breath. “You don’t know what that means, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Regone is cursed, Shan.”
Shannon’s brow crinkled. She could never tell when Martin was joking but this had to be a joke. She’d heard of cursed objects, cursed people, even an occasional cursed castle, but an entire kingdom? The amount of magic it would take to curse an entire kingdom was unfathomable. His eyes were placid, though, no twinkle.
“How so?” she asked.
He adjusted himself in his chair as if preparing to sit for a good length of time.
“Edmond, the current king of Regone, is the second son of the previous king, Ernest. The first son, the Crown Prince Ewan, was killed five years ago by a dragon,” he explained.
“Unfortunate, but hardly in the realm of the supernatural.” Shannon shrugged. “Men are always trying to prove themselves against dragons, and it rarely ends well.”
“I’m not finished. Upon hearing of his brother’s fate, Edmond swore vengeance upon the entire race of dragons and, along with the majority of the knights from the Regonian court, began hunting them down, one by one, from one end of the Continent to the other. Rumor is he and his entourage killed at least a dozen of the great wyrms before they encountered an entire nest of them. Outnumbered by the beasts, they were roasted and rent.”
“Again, sad but the inevitable consequence of tangling with dragons,” she interrupted.
“Again, not finished.” Martin’s scowl returned, a little deeper this time. “Miraculously a handful of the knights survived. Edmond included, though he was grievously wounded. When Ernest saw them bring back his only remaining son clinging to life by a thread, his heart gave out and he died within the hour. Edmond, of course, did live, but is severely maimed and in constant pain from the dragon venom, which is why they need a scholar, someone to help alleviate his symptoms.
“Nothing has gone right for the royal family since Prince Ewan’s death. The kingdom is nearly bankrupt. Many of the nobles have left or are simply refusing to pay taxes because they know King Edmond does not have the manpower to force them to do so. When I was a boy growing up in Regone it was thriving. Ernest was a good king, and Ewan had potential to be an even better one. He wasn’t an idiot. When I’d heard a dragon had got the drop on him, I couldn’t believe it.” Martin stood and motioned towards the door. He was not a particularly tall man and Shannon could gaze directly into his eyes without effort. He reached up and rubbed his already unruly dust brown hair. “You don’t need to be entangled in that mess, not on your first trip out of the Academy.”
“But I’d be perfect for the appointment,” she persisted. “I know I’ll be fine, Martin. I can handle myself, and I promise I won’t go anywhere near dragons. It won’t be hard. They are scarcely seen outside of the Wilderlands nowadays. The chances of being killed in an unprovoked dragon attack must be comparable to the odds of being struck by lightning. The prince’s fate was tragic but statistically improbable.”
“Which is exactly the sort of thing one shouldn’t say in front of anyone who has lost a loved one to a dragon–for instance the king you are so set on healing.” Martin’s eyes flashed and she drew a deep breath.
“Oh, you aren’t afraid for my safety. You are afraid I’m going to say something stupid and embarrass you.”
“No, of course not, I just, well, yes, honestly, a little bit. You tend to speak your mind, Shan. It’s endearing after one becomes accustomed to it, but you will be dealing with a king, not a professor. An offended professor will mark down your paper. Upset a king, and much worse might befall you.”
She frowned and narrowed her eyes at him. “But did King Edmond request a politician or a healer?”
“A healer, of course.”
“And do you think any of those other applicants would be a better healer than me?”
“They are all capable.”
“As capable as me?” She could see him wavering. “Martin, when you received your last promotion, you told me one of the benefits would be aiding those who had helped you in your climb. You also said I was the best research assistant you had ever had. Did you really believe that?”
“I did then and do now. “ He lowered himself down and sighed loudly. “Are you sure this is the assignment you want?”
“It is a good fit.”
“All right. You are on the list then, but no promises. Brush up on antidotes for dragon’s venom and write out what your treatment regimen would be. I’ll look it over, and if it is satisfactory, then maybe you can have the assignment.”
Shannon smiled. She knew she had won.
Shannon had only seen most places on the map. She could point to the farm she grew up on from the window of her Academy apartment. When she was younger, just leaving the farm to study had been the biggest adventure she could imagine. Now she was ready for something new and exciting.
It didn’t take her long to prepare for her journey. On the day of her departure, Martin came to help her carry her bags from her room.
“It isn’t too late for me to send Henri, you know,” Martin said.
“You do realize the caravan to Regone is waiting for me.” Shannon frowned at him. She wrapped old rags around the glass bottles holding her most prized essential oils and placed them gently in her leather carrying case.
“Aye, but there will be another going through Regone in a few days, and we could send him along with that. It won’t kill King Edmond to wait another day or two.”
She carefully closed the case and buckled the leather straps, binding it securely.
“You know it will be almost impossible to extract you without causing an international incident,” Martin continued to harp. “Its proximity to the Academy has given Regone influence beyond what its size and wealth would normally garner. At least three headmasters have come from there.”
Shannon paused. She was well versed in Academy history and that number was off.
“Antonius, Gregory, and who else?”
“Martin,” he grinned mischievously. “In about ten years, of course.”
She shook her head ruefully at him and shouldered her pack.
“That is the last of it. Are you too peeved at me to see me off?”
“I’m not peeved. I’m concerned.” He offered to take her baggage and she accepted, keeping only the case with the delicate, glass vials so she could ensure its safety. They left her tiny apartment and headed down the stairs towards the Merchant’s Courtyard where the caravan awaited.
As they passed the door to one of the classrooms a cluster of men in dark robes, each with a golden crescent amulet upon his chest, emerged. Martin tensed. The leader nodded with a pleasant smile to the pair before guiding his flock back down the hall. Shannon laughed quietly.
“With all your experience, I can’t believe you still let Abel and his band unnerve you like that,” she teased. “He is really a pleasant fellow, when he isn’t in a trance.”
“Diviners,” Martin scoffed. “They take science and turn it into a guessing game.”
Shannon didn’t often admit it, but she envied Abel and his ilk. While it was accepted that a scholar could be successful without magical abilities, she had always longed to possess even the slightest hint of the natural talent needed to devote herself to the flashier “Magic” side of the Academy. In her first several months as a student she had undergone test after test, trying to light a candle with her mind, levitate objects, or invoke visions of the future. All had come to naught. Magic required a natural gifting, generally hereditary, which both she and Martin lacked.
Martin had always assured her that being a scholar, a true scholar, was more about using one’s brains than one’s magical aptitude, and there were certain aspects of magic–warding, spell protection, good luck charms, spell reversals–that could be taught. Martin managed to be successful through hard work and intelligence and often expressed an opinion that those who relied on magic lacked both. However, this contempt did not stop him from acting like a nervous cat whenever the diviners were in a room.
“Abel is sweet,” she persisted. “You can tell he only practices the good sorts of spells.”
Martin snorted loudly.
“I have already defeated you in this debate once,” he said. “There aren’t good and bad sorts of magic. Magic, like science, is a purely secular business.”
“You didn’t defeat me. That debate was clearly a draw,” she said. “And if there aren’t good sorts and bad sorts, why are certain practices allowed while things like Necromancy, Mesmerization, and Bee Charming are forbidden?”
“Because while no magic is evil, some sorts are definitely dangerous,” he answered.
She laughed. “Bee Charming? Really?”
“You try waking up one morning with a swarm of angry bees buzzing around your bedchamber,” he said sourly. Something in his voice suggested experience, and she thought it wise to drop the matter.
They entered the courtyard. Several vendors had set up new stands against the wall. Any other day she would’ve been pouring through their offerings looking for exotic herbs and oils, shiny objects, or just news of the outside world, no matter how fantastic and fabricated it might sound. Today, however, she had her own chance to see places outside of the Academy and Freeman’s Valley.
“Last chance,” he said.
She hugged him quickly.“You know I can handle this, Martin.”
He sighed but nodded.
“I suppose you can,” he said. “But after the death of his brother, Edmond became moody: darker, angrier, difficult to be around. I can’t imagine the passing of his father did anything to lighten his burden, and while you are bright, you have always had a strange way of looking at the world. Please, be careful, Shannon. Kings aren’t like scholars. A good scholar appreciates questions for they allow him to test his preconceived notions and learn about the world through another’s eyes. A king expects to be obeyed, no matter how ridiculous his commands may be, and acquiescing to authority has never been one of your strengths.”
“I will be careful. After all, I am only there to heal him. I won’t have a reason to cross him.”
The journey between the Academy and the Regonian court only took two days. She spent most of that time pouring over the caravan leader’s maps as she sat beside him in the lead wagon. He told her stories of travels through wilder lands.
The merchant, a middle-aged man, had a massive, oily beard and a physique that looked barrel chested when he stood but collapsed like a sack of wheat when he sat.
“There isn’t much to Regone,” he said. “The land there is fertile, but it takes less than a day to cross the breadth of it, and that’s on foot. Most of the folk there are farmers now that the quarries are closed and they can no longer trade stone for wheat. That is the one foolish thing King Edmond has done during his short reign, ordering the quarries to be shut down. Many used to work there and purchase all their food stuffs from the farms in Freeman’s Valley.”
Freeman’s Valley was the official name of the rich floodplain surrounding the Academy. No king held sway there, and with no noblemen taking their cut, they always had extra grain to trade for other things they needed. They were able to maintain this state of liberty due to the protection of the Academy, which age old treaty required to stay on neutral ground so the healers and advisers it sent forth could be trusted by all monarchs. This made the Academy a fecund melting pot filled with scholars from all over the Continent and of all walks of life, and led to the general prosperity of the Freeman’s Valley farmers.
“It seems to be surrounded by larger neighbors,” she said, indicating the kingdoms of Grassel and Westshire which touched upon Regone’s northeastern and southeastern borders.
“Aye, but you see those wee green triangles?” He switched the reins into his other hand and pointed to the borders she had been indicating. “Those represent trees and those trees make up the thickest forest on the Continent, called simply ‘The Wilderlands.’ Those trees provide Regone some shelter from its more aggressive neighbors.”
“I imagine the Middland Range also does its part.” She eyed the sprawling mountain chain that branched into the foothills of Regone and Westshire. “Aren’t they supposedly impassable?”
“Aye, and filled with dangerous, wild beasts. In fact, that is one of the few places on the Continent you can reliably locate dragons. It was in the Range that King Edmond and his men searched out the great wyrms for slaying and it was there that they were outnumbered and bested by the scaly beasts.
“It is rare for dragons to leave the shelter of the uninhabited lands now,” he said. “The one who killed the king’s brother was a fluke, and when on his mission of revenge, King Edmond had to travel far into the uncharted areas in order to find his prey. It is a miracle he made it out alive.”
And foolish of him to attempt the hunt in the first place.
But remembering Martin’s advice, Shannon held her tongue.
“He seems a fair king, however,” the man went on. “Since his wounds have forced him to remain in Regone, he has been slowly picking up the remnants of his father’s kingdom. Soon I hope to see him reopen the quarries. I would love to get my foot in the door early for a piece of that pie.”
Shannon almost said something about the badly mixed metaphor but thought better of it. Would working with royalty often mean not saying what really ought to be said? Well, she could handle that. She wasn’t a fool.
“I see the peak of Mount Regone.” He pointed to a great cinder cone that loomed on the horizon, towering above the smaller hills around it. “It’s old name was Dragon’s Roost, but no one calls it that any more, out of respect for the royal family.”
“A shame, Dragon’s Roost sounds more poetic than Mount Regone.”
“Aye, well, dragons are out of fashion in Regone right now,” he sniffed.
“I suppose that is good. I promised a friend I would stay away from dragons.”