This is my last release, possibly of the year, I promise! But with this book, both the WINGBORN and DRAGONLANDS series have come to an end. 12 books, 2 short novels. Done! I am so relieved. (And can now finally turn my attention to everything and anything else.)
So, if you’re one of the lovely people who has been waiting to see how Nera and Khennik’s story ends, here it is at last.
On a world cursed to be covered in clouds, one dragon will pay any price to protect those he loves. Even against those he once counted as friends.
With him stands a Rider, loyal, brave and true, prepared to sacrifice everything to keep their shared secret safe from harm.
As the chase closes in and everything they’ve fought for falls into danger, the sun will set one last time —
And rise over a world forever changed.
The end is coming.
As this is the end of all things, it’s on offer at .99 (or local equivalent) until next Monday (29th June). Grab it while it’s cheap.
Read on for the Prologue (which is very long for a prologue, and also hugely spoilery if you’ve not read Broken Ground).
Estenhai Palace, Etheria
18th Harvest Month, 580 Cloud Era
“IT WILL BE all right, Wellswen. Wing Marshall Yahiro is a fair and honourable man. He will understand that you did all you could, that no one could have done more than you.”
Anhardyne stared at her boots, letting the ambassador’s words wash over her as the woman paced restlessly around the room. Former ambassador. Jesken had been stripped of her role, title and reputation three days ago after sitting in this very room waiting to be called for judgement.
The disaster and disgrace of the human embassy’s latest delegation to the Dragonlands had spread far and wide since their ragged return to Aquila a month ago. Grief-stricken, sky-weary and bruised by death and failure, the Riders and crew of the Skylark had been so focused on reaching home that none had stopped to think about what their return might mean.
Until the summons arrived.
Unlike the Rift Riders, whose main role across the Overworld was to be impartial and outside the realm of politics, Jesken had been appointed by the political heads of every Overworld state as a representative of all humanity. In her failure, those same heads of state had gathered to berate and condemn her, removing her glorious office and casting her out of the diplomatic corps. They had stopped just short of imprisoning her, but one look at the woman suggested she felt as wretched as if they had done exactly that.
Gone were the fine robes of velvet and silk, lavishly embroidered in golden thread. They had been replaced by a serviceable woollen gown in a dark brown shade, her once elaborately styled hair contained beneath a headscarf. Her charming smile had vanished, her eyes were red and puffy, her round cheeks hollowed by recent hardship.
She wasn’t the only one who had changed. Outwardly, Captain Wellswen looked as commanding as ever in her scarlet coat, but there were fresh lines on the woman’s face and her stern expression had hardened to permanent grimness. Anhardyne knew she wasn’t herself either. Thinner, grimmer, aged and pale, she felt as hollow as everyone else looked, emptied by betrayal and grief. Only Gharrik remained unchanged, steadfast as always. A smattering of sergeants were with them, huddled in the corner, looking as if they would rather be anywhere else than here.
Anhardyne didn’t blame them. Once she might have stared in wonder at her surroundings. Estenhai, the High Palace of Etheria, was a beautiful place. A sprawling complex set in emerald green parkland, cultivated to be the best the Greater West had to offer. It was open, light and airy, flowing gracefully from room to room, with balconies and courtyards inviting the outside in at every opportunity. It was a sumptuous mix of wood and stone, stuffed to the rafters with exquisite treasures from across the Overworld and before the Curse. It was somewhere Anhardyne had always longed to visit. Now that she was here, she could only stare at the floor.
Not that there was much else to see in this cramped antechamber tucked off to the side of the throne room. No expense had been wasted on decorating this room. It was barely even furnished, with just a few hard benches and a handful of broken chairs.
A fitting place to house the condemned.
“It will be all right,” Jesken said again, still pacing. “Yahiro will give you a fair hearing.”
Unlike the one the former-ambassador had received. She’d been called before the gathered heads of state and humiliated, no chance given to defend herself or explain what had gone wrong or why. She hadn’t been permitted to speak. They simply took her office away with no regard to the good she had done, no recognition of the treaties she had fought so hard to secure and still managed to bring back from the Dragonlands, despite everything.
It wasn’t fair. Their trip might have ended in disaster, but it was not of Jesken’s making. She had performed her role perfectly, and yet she had still been punished.
It wasn’t fair.
“Yahiro will be fair.” Perhaps Jesken believed that if she said it enough times, it would have to come true.
Anhardyne raised her eyes from the floor and met Gharrik’s blank stare. They both looked down again, neither daring to so much as glance at their captain. Wellswen stood rigid in the centre of the cramped room, feet firmly planted, hands behind her back. Parade rest, in a room where no one was watching, braced against what was about to come.
“He will be fair.”
“It is not Yahiro that worries me,” the captain spoke at last, her voice soft. Jesken stopped and looked at her. Wellswen raised her head, staring at the tiny door that separated them from the hall. “The generals are with him. Their opinions carry weight.”
Anhardyne clenched one hand around the other, thinking of the three generals that passed on the Wing Marshall’s orders and effectively ruled the Rift Riders.
“Zyrii will support you,” Jesken said, resuming her pacing. “She can be a stickler for the rules, but even she won’t deny that you did the best you could.”
Which was true. The General of the West was a joyless woman, far too fond of rules and regulations, but she wasn’t spiteful. She would listen to the facts and make a balanced judgement based upon them. As long as Wellswen was allowed to state her case, General Zyrii would give her a fair hearing.
“Orret won’t.” Captain Wellswen shifted her feet for the first time since they’d entered the room half the morning ago. “He and I have history.”
The General of the South had been a decent Rider once, but power had turned him petty and mean-spirited. It was said that he was a yes-man and bowed to whoever’s interests were most likely to advance his own. He would vote the way of the Wing Marshall.
Which left only Axlen, the General of the East. Widely admired but rarely liked, Anhardyne had heard things about General Axlen that had made her doubt the great man’s supposed reputation.
The door handle creaked as it was turned from the outside. Wellswen stiffened, Jesken whirled to face the door, while Anhardyne, Gharrik and the sergeants all jumped to their feet.
A wizened official, the same who had shown them into the antechamber at first light, squinted at them through thick spectacles. “Their Majesties will see you now,” she whispered in a voice like rustling paper.
Anhardyne looked at her captain. Wellswen’s face was set in its most expressionless mask as she raised her chin and marched from the room. Anhardyne followed, the sergeants on her heels, Gharrik bringing up the rear.
Former-ambassador Jesken watched them go, hands clenched in her skirts. “Good luck,” she called. No one responded. They were beyond the boundaries of luck now and had been for too many months to count.
Anhardyne kept her chin up and her shoulders back as she followed her captain into the grand throne room of Estenhai. Floor to ceiling windows allowed the late summer light to pour in upon them, tinting the polished wooden floor with honey-gold. Ranks upon ranks of courtiers, government representatives and Rift Riders watched in silence as Wellswen led her Riders across the expanse of floor and down an ever-widening walkway towards the dais.
Fifteen thrones were arranged upon it, one for each head of state or their chosen representative, the central ones held by King Ustad of Etheria and Stratys Dynai of Imercian. Four chairs had been arranged in front of them for the Wing Marshall and his generals.
As Wellswen stepped into the circle before the dais, her footsteps faltered. It was slight, the merest hitch, noticeable to Anhardyne purely because she was close and knew her captain so well. Most didn’t see it.
The Wing Marshall did and a smile widened across the rugged cracks of his face.
“What’s Axlen doing in the Marshall’s chair? Where’s Yahiro?” Sergeant Keita whispered behind Anhardyne’s back, and was quickly hushed by the others.
Anhardyne’s eyes flicked along the line of generals. Zyrii was there, looking sour and unhappy, as was Orret, whose eyes gleamed to match his smirk. The third general was another man, a stranger, big and bulky across the shoulders, with a pale face that looked to have been carved from granite. His dark eyes stared at each of them in turn, but Anhardyne couldn’t tell anything of what he was thinking.
A sense of coldness seeped through her as she stopped behind Wellswen’s left shoulder. Gharrik took up his position to the captain’s right, the sergeants behind them. They all planted their feet and clasped their hands behind their backs, braced against what was to follow.
A fresh smile spread across Axlen’s face. He had been a handsome man once, or so the stories said. Waves of curly dark brown hair had once poured over his shoulders, his face broad, strong and quick to smile. Until a blade carved up that face and age thinned and faded his hair. He was almost bald now, his once-famous curls trimmed close to his head. The scar on his right cheek was barely noticeable in the deep, austere lines of his face. He looked regal, more kingly than some of the men on the dais behind him. His brown eyes should have been warmed by that bright, bright smile, but they remained hard as they lingered over Anhardyne and Wellswen and Sergeants Keita and Kira, sparing Gharrik and Sergeant Leom only the briefest glance.
It reminded Anhardyne of what she’d heard about Axlen and how he had earned that scar. Not in battle but in a brothel, where it was said a woman had taken exception to his behaviour and paid him back in kind.
Axlen’s cold eyes settled on Wellswen’s face and Anhardyne knew nothing good would follow. The Wing Marshall rose slowly from his chair and raised his head, the better to project his voice.
“Step forward, Wellswen,” he intoned, his voice unfairly rich and resonant. It was a good voice, a strong voice, the voice of a man one could trust.
Wellswen stepped forward without a hint of hesitation. Only Anhardyne and Gharrik were close enough to see that the tips of her fingers were white from the clench of her hands.
“Thirty years a Rider,” Axlen said in his powerful voice, as he paced in slow, deliberate strides around the captain. “A stalwart member of your flight. A fine lieutenant, a distinguished captain. The epitome of excellent service. An example for us all.” He paused in front of Wellswen, staring up into her eyes.
On any other day Anhardyne would have been tickled to see that her captain was taller than the Wing Marshall. Today she felt only a deepening chill.
“An example and a warning.” Axlen swivelled on his boot heel, addressing the dignitaries and the crowd as he began to pace before the dais this time. “The post of protector to the human ambassador to the Dragonlands is one of the greatest honours the Rift Riders can bestow. Despite your impeccable record, I had my doubts about your appointment, your fitness for this duty and your ability to control your Riders. Doubts I was not afraid to speak.
“I was overruled.” He halted before Wellswen again. “And yet I was right.” Eyes gleaming, he leaned in close to whisper, “What a pity Yahiro isn’t here to save you this time.” He smiled, turned on his heel and walked back to his chair.
Axlen sat down, resuming the noble air of the Wing Marshall. “Remove your coat, Wellswen, you no longer have the right to wear those stripes. You no longer have the right to call yourself a Rider. You no longer have the right to be here at all.”
The crowd gasped, along with a flurry of whispers, some shocked, others tittering. It wasn’t every day a Rider captain was stripped of her rank before an audience. It wasn’t every day a Rider was expelled from the ranks. Anhardyne had to lock her knees to prevent herself from stepping forward in protest.
Wellswen said nothing, merely reached for the front of her jacket and tore it open with one firm yank. A brass button skittered across the polished floor as the woman wrenched the garment from her shoulders.
It should have been humiliating, seeing so proud a woman reduced to her braces and shirtsleeves. Wellswen was never anything but perfectly turned out, her boots polished to a mirror-bright shine, her jacket spotless, her bars of rank scrupulously clean. It should have been degrading to see her neck cloth wrenched askew like that, to see her shirt anything less than perfectly tucked in.
Yet there was nobility in her disgrace, a strength in the dignified line of her jaw that made a mockery of this punishment and turned the Wing Marshall’s order into something petty.
“Lieutenant Anhardyne, step forward.”
Ice filled Anhardyne’s veins as she stepped up beside her captain. Wellswen would never be anything else to her.
“Your behaviour in the Dragonlands has been relayed to us,” General Zyrii unexpectedly spoke up. “Your conduct has been judged and found wanting. Your lack of discipline is grievous indeed.” To such a woman Anhadyrne’s behaviour would indeed be classed as the greatest of sins. Abandoning her post, disregarding orders, and other terrible things. All out of friendship and loyalty, no matter how foolishly misplaced.
“However,” General Orret said, his voice as oily as his smile, “in light of your captain’s behaviour, it is clear that your faults lie mainly at her door. If there are flaws in your training, surely she is to blame.”
Anhardyne clenched her jaw so hard she thought her teeth would crack. How dared they? How dared they lay her reckless idiocy at Wellswen’s door? How dared they use her stupidity as a further lash to beat her captain with? Wellswen wasn’t to blame for Anhardyne’s foolishness, just as she wasn’t to blame for Nera’s betrayal or Vish’s —
No, not even here, not even now. Anhardyne couldn’t, wouldn’t think of Vish. Of what had happened. Of what had been done. She couldn’t think of Zantho or the others either.
She could only glare with all the ice that had taken over her heart. But not at Orret. He was small and mean, petty and irrelevant. She saved her hate for Axlen and the way he smirked.
He hated women. That’s what everyone said about him. He hated women and women hated him back.
Anhardyne could see why.
“You have been demoted,” General Zyrii took up the speech again. “Your rank of lieutenant has been removed, but you will remain a Rider.” For now was the unspoken rejoinder.
Anhardyne hadn’t been cast out as Wellswen had, but she wasn’t forgiven either. She would be watched, she had no doubt. Every one of her actions would be reported, judged and recorded somewhere to be used against her at the first opportunity.
She wanted to spit in their faces, but she had shamed Wellswen enough. She would stand here and take her punishment with stoic dignity, just as her captain had done. At least she’d been allowed to keep her jacket on.
“Lieutenant Gharrik, step forward,” the Wing Marshall said.
Beneath its layers of ice, Anhardyne’s heart still managed to clench. Beside her Wellswen shifted ever so slightly. Gharrik was innocent. Whatever else had happened during their trip through the Dragonlands, Gharrik had remained steadfast and true throughout. He hadn’t done anything foolish, he hadn’t got anyone into trouble. He had never broken any rules. If they punished him…
“Remove your jacket.”
Oh, gods, Anhardyne didn’t think she could bear it. She couldn’t hold her tongue any longer, she couldn’t —
“Put on Wellswen’s.”
Someone shouted in the crowd and this time the whispers were more of a roar. Anhardyne was grateful, because they covered her own shocked grunt. She felt like she’d been punched.
Not because Gharrik didn’t deserve to be promoted to captain – he did, of course he did, no one was more worthy – but here, now, in such a way? Oh gods, who knew the Riders could be so ruthlessly cruel?
“Silence!” The third general spoke for the first time, rising in his seat like some northern giant. He didn’t just look like he’d been carved from rock, he sounded like it too. His voice was big and booming, with a gritty after-rasp that scraped along the nerves.
The hall fell silent.
“Put on the coat, captain,” Axlen ordered.
Gharrik didn’t move. Anhardyne dared to turn her head and saw Wellswen holding the garment out towards him.
“Take it,” their captain commanded. “You’ve earned it.”
Gharrik didn’t even look at it. He raised his chin and stared at the Wing Marshall. “It won’t fit.”
More whispers spread through the confused crowd, but none so loud as to require a reprimand. Anhardyne looked at the dais and saw many a revered head of state shifting in discomfort. Good. She didn’t want anyone to enjoy this.
“Put it on, you fool,” Wellswen insisted, tossing the jacket at her former lieutenant.
Gharrik caught it, but only to throw it back. Wellswen made no move to catch it and it fell in a heap at her feet.
“Pick it up and put it on,” Axlen demanded, his voice as tight as his fiercely clenched jaw. His humiliating spectacle wasn’t going at all to plan and fresh chills of anxiety ran through Anhardyne. Much as she admired Gharrik for his loyalty, this was not the time to prove it.
“It is too big for me,” the lieutenant announced, clasping his hands behind his back once more. And while it was true that Wellswen was taller and broader across the shoulders, everyone knew this was only a symbolic moment, meant to embarrass Wellswen. He would get his own jacket later, tailored for the perfect fit, the dye fresh and bright.
Except Axlen was the one turning red. “You will put that coat on now, Rider, or you will follow your precious former-captain into disgrace and dishonour.”
Gharrik made a crisp half-turn and bowed to Wellswen. “It will always be the greatest honour to follow my captain wherever she goes.”
“Gharrik,” Wellswen growled. “Don’t be an idiot.”
To Anhardyne’s astonishment, the stoic lieutenant winked.
“Listen to her, man!” General Orret exclaimed. “You’re throwing your career away!”
Gharrik turned to face the dais and smiled. “Good. Consider this my official resignation.” He bowed to the exalted personages in their thrones, ignored the Wing Marshall and generals, saluted Wellswen for good measure and strode briskly from the room.
Anhardyne watched him go with a mixture of awe and fury, because how dared he leave? She needed him. She needed them all. How else was she to carry on if all the best Riders were gone? Who would help her get justice for Vish? Who else would care? Was she to lose everyone she cared about?
Beside her Wellswen closed her eyes and tipped her head back, perhaps in silent prayer, more likely in utter exasperation.
The Wing Marshall and his generals had been shocked into silence. Anhardyne somehow doubted any of this was turning out like they’d planned. Good for Gharrik.
“Well.” The Stratys shifted on her uncomfortable throne, not bothering to hide her amusement as she continued, “you have certainly entertained us most heartily this morning, Wing Marshall, but perhaps we ought to break for lunch before we commence the next act?”
“An excellent suggestion,” King Ustad agreed, and the esteemed dignitaries shuffled out as quickly as they could manage, the courtiers and diplomats wafting hurriedly after them.
In less time than Anhardyne might have expected only Riders remained in the throne room.
“I warned you,” General Zyrii muttered, sounding furious.
“This isn’t over,” Wing Marshall Axlen snarled and stormed from the room, General Orret hurrying after him, babbling placating nonsense.
Zyrii sighed and looked at Wellswen. For a moment she hesitated, clearly debating whether or not to speak. Eventually she shook her head and followed the others from the room.
Anhardyne turned to face her captain, the chill inside thawing with dismay. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean – I never imagined -” she began, but Wellswen was smiling. She looked relieved, the lines of care and grimness already easing from her face.
Not relieved, happy. The woman was actually pleased about this farce.
“It’s over. At last.” Wellswen shook her head, laughing softly beneath her breath.
Anhardyne felt as if the floor had been wrenched from beneath her feet. Here she was feeling guilty and awful for ruining her captain’s career, but Wellswen was happy about it.
The woman she had looked up to and admired for so many years, patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t fret over me, Hardy. This is for the best. You’ll see.”
Then she left, sauntering out of the throne room in the same direction Gharrik had taken in such spectacular style.
Gharrik and Wellswen had left her. Vish was dead. Her miryhl was dead. Nera had betrayed her. Even the sergeants cast her worried looks before they scurried away.
Anhardyne stood abandoned as the rest of the Riders flowed out of the hall and felt her ice return.
They might have stripped away her rank, everyone else might have left, but she would not give up. She would fight on. She would work hard. She would claw her way back up the ranks, and when she reached a place of power, she wouldn’t just find justice for Vish, she would wrench out its heart with her own two hands.
Somewhere in the depths of the palace, a bell announced the midday meal. Full of fury, grief and determination, Anhardyne strode out of the throne room and headed for the eyries. She had work to do.