QSFer Alex Hintermann has a new MM fantasy book out: Of Gallantry and Magic.
Sir Tristan, son of Derrick Dragonbane, would like to settle down and raise dragons, but he is obligated to follow in his father’s heroic footsteps. While interviewing for the novice knight position at a prestigious court, he meets a brash, bearded commoner who compels him to reassess his goals, as well as his sexuality.
At five years old, I slew my first dragon. At six, I commenced study of sword and ground combat with men of heroic distinction. At age eight, I placed first in formal combat at the Munot Juvenile Tourney and successfully defended my title at nine. At thirteen, I entered the Rittersburg Academy of Gallantry and placed first for three consecutive years in formal combat at the Rittersburg Annual Tourney. In my spare hours, I tamed a Caldera Firebreather considered, “explosively dangerous and not to be domesticated.” (Rittersburg Dragon Registry.) I rode her in the Munot Annual Tourney and won first place in dragon riding. At eighteen, I graduated from Academy and was knighted with honors in gallant studies.
Thus read my List of Accomplishments distinguishing me as a candidate worthy of employment, just like everyone else.
Gone were the days when a young man could be knighted, ride to a castle, offer service to its lord and be accepted into the court. Now there was a melee of other candidates between him and the open gate. His victory against the thousand others was largely a matter of aggressiveness and chance.
That is why it was so miraculous when, one morning at dawn, I received a letter by speed raven penned in the strict hand of Sir Clive Giantslayer, requesting my presence at Schafheim’s court to interview for the position of Novice Knight on the 24th of März.
I did not know why I had been selected. I had only submitted my name and List of Accomplishments to Schafheim as I had to every other lordship on the Continent.
This summons was like an elven trumpet, sounding once, never to be heard again.
At dawn on März the 23rd, I departed from Munot with a fair wind at my back. Valeria spread her wings with ease. The reins rested lightly in my hands. It was as if the Ancestors themselves were bearing us over the dense forest and open plains. We passed the city of Forchette by noon, and the thick line of the River Iris by two. By four, I beheld the slumbering, leafless forests of the Middle-North.
The landscape appeared different in person than on tapestries. The hills sat much further apart, and crested lazily rather than sharply. Hordes of knights did not run in a fury across oversized bridges, and no wiry mages hunkered at the mouths of caves. It was only a quiet expanse of rolling earth with a rust-colored fog in the north and an otherwise calm blue sky.
I recalled my father’s words: “Tristan, my son, you voyage to the heart of Gottesauge, to paths which I once trod, halls where I had audience. You also wander into a land of unhealed wounds. Should anyone question your loyalty, remind them of my deeds and assure them that your career in gallantry will be a continuation of my own.”
“Let it be so,” I mouthed to the wind. Like my father, who slew the largest beast in the history of the Continent, I would serve the Continental Brotherhood of Gottesauge, and I would not relent.
As the sun was nearing the horizon, the land slanted toward a thin silver line, which zagged through a shallow valley. The River Augenwimpern, which meandered down the belly of the Continent.
I slackened the reins and twitched my spurs. Valeria began her descent. Hardly a moment passed between my command and her compliance. She was as an extension of myself: thirty stone, three horse-lengths long, with a flame that could reach a full eighth league in chilled air. Her wings were of the thinnest gossamer, though they were stronger than any rock or metal. As we descended, the river grew from a thread to a cord. Dots were revealed as houses, smudges as branches. On its near bank sat a circle of granite walls, accented by triangular bastions; a great throwing star amidst a forest of bare trees. Scores of buildings were packed within the walls. Sharply peaked roofs, a tall clock tower on a new spirit hall, a graceful L for the main thoroughfare. Though built in classic design, most of these buildings and streets were new. Historic Schafheim had been devastated by a dragon’s blast.
I drew in the reins. Valeria leveled out and held steady. Schafheim’s dragon stalls were purportedly along the southern battlements. Large dragons were prohibited inside the city, and by anyone’s estimation my dragon was large.
I leaned and Valeria banked right.
As we drifted closer, I saw a cluster of color atop the battlements. White, blue, green and red filling the aisle between the long row of cages. People.
I clutched the reigns tightly. What was the meaning of this? Dragon stalls were quiet places where beasts could eat and slumber undisturbed by mortal men, except when their slops ran low or their clods needed shoveling. The stalls were supposed to be the dragon’s repose, not a circus of ogglers crowding them, grasping their tails, waving food in front of their muzzles, provoking them to breathe flame. No. I did not know what this place was, but it was not a haven for dragons.
Who were all these people, then, and why were they here?
I drifted closer, and saw amongst the silks flashes of light like sun on steel.
My gallant calm, so carefully cultivated by exercise and meditation, threatened to waver. Were these the other novice knight candidates? How did Schafheim intend to select only one novice knight from so many? Would he hold a tournament, like Lord Machtburg last season? Challenges to the death?
I circled Valeria high above the landing pad and looked at the blobs of color, now turning pale and copper as my competitors looked skyward.
If they are to greet me, let them greet my dragon also, so they will know the extent of our might.
I held three fingers to Valeria’s neck. She leveled out and held steady. She knew we were going to perform some kind of a trick, and was only waiting on me to decide which one. A good flare of the wings would suit this crowd, I surmised.
I tapped Valeria’s neck twice and slackened the reins.
She dove. The battlements rose up to meet us. Dots of color became shoulders, heads of hair, mouths hanging open. I pulled Valeria up. She flared her wings. People cried out and scuttled away from the landing pad.
Like a judge, serene over chaos, I tapped Valeria to land. She pumped her wings to a hover, then set down upon the cobblestones with a faint talon click.
I swung down from her back and removed my goggles but not my helm. All manner of faces turned toward me. Dark-haired purebloods, copper-skinned southerners, red-haired plainsfolk, united by their baffled expressions.
I addressed the crowd. “You gathered here! I seek the dragonkeeper!”
Only then, when all eyes were on me, did I think to examine the attire of my competitors. They were not knights with swords and boiled leathers, but a gathering of wizards, at various ages with various lengths of beard, wearing long robes and sour countenances. What I had taken for the flourish of steel was only reflected light from the amulets, which elementals always wore about their necks.
Wizards were no threat to me professionally, but it would not do to abandon my performance. A great entrance rescinded is worse than no entrance at all.
“I say!” I exclaimed again. “Where is the keeper of dragons?”
Brows creased and frowns deepened. A gravelly voice barked, “ya!” and a heavy woman with a broad face ambled out of the crowd. Swaying on stiff knees, she hunched forward, carrying a mop. Her skin was an unseemly pale and her long dark hair was matted into vine-like cords. Even slouched, she stood a head taller than myself.
“What can I do for ya?” she asked.
As she flipped her hair out of her eyes, the pupils shimmered yellow. I shuddered. She was a far northerner. A giant.
“I require a solitary stall.”
“Don’ got none’a those free.”
“I own a fire-breathing dragon, and for the safety of everyone on these grounds, she must be quartered alone, without neighbors.”
The dragonkeeper shook her head, making her hair vines sway. “We got a hundred firebreathers here, an none of ‘em need special stalls. She have trouble controlling her flame?”
My face grew hot with anger. “I assure you, madam giant, my dragon will not leak a grunt of flame without my command.”
The dragonkeeper nodded. “She make clods on command too? That would be nice.”
She dared to jest with me. Was it not clear that I outranked her, citizen to foreigner?
The tall woman jabbed her thumb toward a stone-sided cavern next to the landing pad. “We only got one solit’ry stall, an’ that’s for my Laurent.”
It was a tidy space with fresh straw on the floor. Within it sat a great shadow three times the size of Valeria. A transport dragon, most likely, flame neutered and docile.
“The transport dragon?”
“Does he breathe flame?”
“Could he not slumber outside the cage?”
“If ya want his big ass to clog up the landing pad.”
Now was the time to assert the noble character of my blood and the authority befitting to a gallant. My father says I must be firm and uncompromising, or rather than slay my enemies, my enemies will slay me.
I thrust a finger in front of her face, “Hear me, bog-wench! I am an exclusive guest of Lord Schafheim arrived on very important business. I require particular lodgings and you will provide them, or I shall file a civil complaint with His Lordship. I am a gallant of remarkable blood. Schafheim will hear my complaint, repossess your establishment, and condemn you to a life back in Finsterwald.”
I let a dry smile spread across my face. The expression lords use to communicate to their subjects that anything less than complete compliance will result in their deaths.
The dragonkeeper only shrugged. “You want the big stone room, you can have it, but it’s gonna cost you.”
“Nine silvers per day.”
I gripped the hilt of my sword, dug my fingers into the leather of the grip until it hurt. Even with this, I could not keep myself from exploding.
“Nine silvers! Are you out of your vine-headed mind? I could buy a new dragon for that!”
“I s’pose you could, but then you’d have to keep it somewhere, and that would cost you double.”
“You,” I gasped, overcome. “You are a terror!”
“Maybe so, young Sir, but this is the way it is. Nine silvers, and this whole bastion is yours. Even the landing pad. I’ll tack a big sign out front to let everyone know this is your domain. Everyone else can land two bastions over and lodge in the aisles. How many days you gonna be here?”
“You got twenty-eight silvers?”
In my whole purse, which had taken several months to collect, I had twenty-eight silvers and 10 coppers. Ten coppers could buy one loaf of bread at best.
This was the test of my heroic blood. I needed the lodgings, and had procured them by great use of rhetorical force. I could not relent.
I lifted my eyes to meet her yellow ones. “Of course I have twenty-eight silvers.”
“All right,” the dragonkeeper took a small scroll and pencil out of her back pocket. “What’s your name?”
“Sir Tristan, son of Derrick Dragonbane.”
She scribbled something much shorter. “And your dragon?”
She wrote that neater.
The dragonkeeper gave her token blank look, waited for me to sign the paper and hand her the coins. I did so with a confidence that would make my father proud.
Alex Hintermann hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Their short fiction has been published in The Woolf Quarterly and White Bianco Weiss: A Swiss WriMos Multilingual Anthology. Of Gallantry and Magic is their debut novel. Alex enjoys hiking, multilingual puns, and Swiss chocolate.