Excerpt from Ian's Realm
Dad is it him?” Ian blew into his leather gloves as he glanced at the figure camouflaged against the cliffs. Cold and gray, like the magnificent pillars it perched on—the falling snow adhered to it as though it were a statue.
Alex Wilson nudged his horse alongside the dapple mare. “It’s him, all right. Old Stone Heart.” A puff of steam—warm breath meeting the frozen air of the mountain—rolled from his parted lips as he whispered the words.
Ian relied on his father’s recognition of the dragon. His dad had been stranded alone on Deception Peak for countless days, dodging in and out of caves, searching for water and food, and doing what he could to escape from the evil of the mountain. Without the help of Amleth and his men, Ian doubted he would have found his father, or been able to nurture him back to health. But with the medicine of the Kaemperns, and his father’s health restored, the two were on their journey home, back to the real world. The most treacherous part of the trip was this narrow snowy trek directly up the switchbacks, and across the slate ledge that led to the western ridge.
“We’ll find the fork that descends into the foothills soon,” Alex nodded, indicating their course. “That’ll get us to the prairie a little after sundown. Depending on how tired we are, we can decide whether to rest, or ride home by starlight.”
Ian paid little attention to the ice on the trail, trusting his sure-footed mare. He looked back frequently at Stenhjaert as they rode quietly, the horses’ hooves silenced by the soft fresh snow under their feet.
We’re quiet enough. The dragon won’t notice us and soon we’ll be home. Man, a hot shower and a soft bed sure sound good right about now. Only a little while longer...
Ian’s thoughts vanished the moment the dragon gave a deafening roar and emitted a blast of flame. Though far above them, its marble-like eyes glowed bright like a lava lamp.
“He’s seen us,” Alex shouted, and prodded his horse into a gallop.
Sparkles bolted. Slipping slightly, Ian’s mare caught her ground and then charged forward behind the buckskin. Ian clenched the saddle horn, his knuckles white.
The dragon’s huge body whipped around the mountaintop and dove off the precipice toward them. Boulders fell as the dragon’s weight broke the cliffs apart. Down the monster came, half falling, half jumping. Its giant claws tore trees as it crashed onto the rocky terrain of the foothills. Gaining its balance, the creature tucked its wings against its body. It focused on Ian and began its chase on foot, its huge claws shaking the earth as it moved. Lightning flashed. Whether from the thunder, or the deafening sound of the dragon, the mountain rumbled and rattled.
The faster their horses galloped, the faster Stenhjaert charged. Sparkles raced behind the buckskin, down the rocky foothills to the grassy plains. For miles they sped, and for what seemed like hours. The ominous breath of the dragon ignited an inferno as the grass of the prairie exploded in fire.
The two changed direction and turned south into the forest, disappearing into the lush undergrowth. In the woods, Alex jumped from his mount and handed Ian his reins.
“Take the horses,” Alex said as he caught his breath. A flash of lightning illuminated his strong features. His sweat was mixed with sleet and the rain that dripped from his brow. He panted as he spoke. “Take them to the bay and let them loose. Pull the canoe out of the reeds and wait for me.”
Ian’s eyes grew wide as he dismounted; his heart palpitated so fast he could barely think.
“I’ll be all right,” Alex assured him. “I’ll be with you shortly.” “No,” Ian blurted when he realized what his father was doing.
Alex pulled his sheath from his saddle’s ties. “All that time I was on the mountain I knew it was going to come to this. You’ve seen his strength, what he did to that village. How he killed men, women, and children with the heat of his breath. How he destroyed their homes. The Meneks are terrified. They’ll never know peace if that monster is alive. Go to the meadow and wait for me there. I’ll tend to this devil.” He buckled the belt around his waist and yanked the scabbard in place. “I promised Vilfred I’d help him find the sphere. We’ll get this dragon out of here and seal that portal shut forever.”
Ian grabbed his father’s arm, “No.”
“I never should have brought you here,” Alex mumbled.
“Neither of us should have come, Dad. Let’s just go home.”
“Ian, trust me. This must be done. Let me take care of it.”
Alex ripped his arm free when Ian clenched his father’s coat. “Don’t try to stop me. My mind is made up. I’m putting an end to Stenhjaert tyranny.”
“Then I’ll fight with you.” Ian reached for the sword tied to his saddlebags, but Alex stopped him.
“No. Did you hear me? Go home.”
The anger in Alex’s voice pierced Ian’s heart and their eyes met for a desperate moment. A wild screech from the dragon interrupted them. The horses reared, tossed their heads, and tugged Ian’s hold on the reins. Ian fought for control, their strength overwhelmed Ian. If Alex hadn’t grabbed their bits and pulled their heads low, the horses would have run.
“Blast it, Ian. Get the horses to a safe place. You get to a safe place.” Alex untied a leather pouch from around his waist and tucked it in Ian’s belt.
“Here,” he said. “If I’m not at the bay by sunrise, go on without me. Go home.”
Ian shook his head. I can’t lose you, Dad. I just found you. I’m not going through this nightmare again. “Don’t do this, Dad.”
Another screech and a roar of flames above their heads muffled his voice. Ian pulled again at his father’s coat and then let go, flailing at him. How can he leave me?
Alex grabbed Ian’s wrists.
“You can’t do this to me,” Ian said as he struggled to free himself. Alex released his son’s hands and when he did, Ian clung to him. “Don’t leave me alone.” His screams turned to sobs. “It’s going to be just like last time. You’re going to disappear and I’m going to be an orphan again. You can’t go, Dad. You can’t die.”
Alex peeled Ian’s arms away.
“You weren’t an orphan then and you won’t be now. I’ll be right behind you. I’m not leaving. I just want you safe. Go on; get to the meadow and away from this fire!” Another stream of flame curled the treetops. “Save yourself! Go!”
With shaking hands, Ian tied the pouch tightly to his belt and pulled the shield from his saddle’s pommel. Lightning and fire radiated on the buckler’s hammered pattern. The ruby stones that were set against the brass glowed as drops of rain beat on them. The dragon screeched—the same shrill cry Ian had heard the night before when Emil died recovering his shield from the caves of Deception Peak.
Ian handed it to his father.
“Take this, then,” he said, wiping the rain from his face with his sleeve.
“I gave it to you,” Alex protested.
“Take it.” Ian choked on his words. “Maybe it’s what you need. Maybe it will save you. I don’t want you to die.”
Alex took the shield from his son. “Only as a loan. It’s not my intention to die. Now get out of here. Now,” Alex growled his command. “Now! Go!” He swatted his horse on the rump and the animal jumped, yanking Ian back. Alex drew his sword.
With careful navigation, Ian led the nervous horses into the deep of the forest. The fire had been snuffed, the torrential rain had drowned its burning thirst, and now thick black smoke hovered over him. Though the downpour ceased, a cold mist settled on the forest floor, chilling his bones.
The moon peeked over the clouds, illuminating a haunting aura on the horses. Shadows danced like ghosts across the trail. Ian shuddered.
At the bottom of the ravine, he turned, hoping to see his father one last time. The dark forest and a trail of smoke seeped toward him, and embers flew into the stormy sky.
The horses spooked again and pulled on their bits. Ian stumbled but held on. He led them up the other side of the ravine, hoping he might be able to catch another glimpse of his father, but all he saw were the dark silhouettes of the trees back lit by new flames the dragon spat. The terrifying sound of its shriek blared through the woods.
Ian led the mares south until they came to the meadow.
He did all that his father told him to do. Sliding their saddles to the ground, he took off their bridles and released the mares, watching them gallop away in the grass. Carefree, safe from danger they pranced; their sleek coats glowed in the dark; their manes flowed freely in the wind.
It took little time to find the canoe in the reeds along the bank. Ian loaded the vessel with the tack, and then settled in the grass to wait.
I should have stayed with him. Why does Dad think he must be a hero? Why?
He wrapped the saddle blanket around his shoulders and shivered. Hours passed. He fought fatigue, hoping Dad would appear. But in the end, Ian fell asleep in the grass under the stars.
A mid-morning sun greeted him when he opened his eyes, and for the first moments of waking he felt comforted. Red-wing blackbirds called to one another among the reeds, and a chorus of toads sang in the cattails as the wetlands greeted the day. A mosquito buzzed by his ears. He slapped at it and sat up.
Whatever had happened the night before had been smothered by the blanket of dawn.
The emptiness Ian had fallen asleep with soon returned. His heart weighed heavy. The ride from the Kaempern camp had been long and wore on his body. As he carefully eyed the fields, bay and prairie surrounding him, he looked for what he knew wasn’t there.
“Dad?” he called as he stood, letting the blanket fall to the ground. “Dad?” Walking to the trail, Ian gazed down the lonely path that disappeared into the dark of the woods. “Dad?” No answer.
“Dad?” Everything in his world slipped under the deep flood of sorrow.
Returning to the bay, he sat by the canoe, emotionally paralyzed.
A lamenting voice sang on the wind. He’d heard it before. Amleth called it the Songs of Wisdom. But Ian refused to listen. He didn’t want to be comforted. Inhaling, he composed himself long enough to position the canoe, step into it, and paddle through the shallow waters. He’d go home. Alone.