Chapter 1 - Karmilla
That her father was the Baron of Vale, Karmilla Tate had always known. Only as she grew from a child into a young woman did she begin to suspect that her father was very different even from other great knights.
He lived, with his wife Lyssa and their daughter, beside a lake in the deepest valley of Vale, hidden in the remotest mountains of northerly Kellia. Their home was a simple log cabin on the lake shore, with a single room within where wife and daughter slept, while the great Baron himself, Knight-General Sir Karel Tate, slept outside on the turf in full armour, his sword upon his breast.
Karmilla's father was a taciturn man, her mother equally so; silence ruled the little family on the lakeside. Karmilla learned silence before she learned speech, and so learned not to question, but simply to watch.
On some nights, her mother would go outside and sleep beneath the stars with Karel Tate. It was rare that he ever set foot within the cabin, and equally rare that anyone disturbed the solitude of their valley.
Only two kinds of people ever visited. To Karmilla's child-eyes, they were at first big shiny people, and small, dull-coloured people. They would come and speak to her father, and from these infrequent conversations, Karmilla learned all she knew of the world beyond the valley.
The small, dull-coloured people she learned were called “peasants”, and identified themselves so. The big, silver people, were “knights”. Peasants tremlbed before her father, for he was a knight of enormous stature, clad in armour and bearing his sword every hour of night or day. The knights were not cowed by him, and stayed longer, usually overnight, perhaps for a few days.
Every peasant seemed more or less alike. Sometimes, her father would go off with them, and return a few hours or days later. Every knight was different; as like her father as they were unlike him. Most of the knights came to see Karel Tate in particular, but there were one or two who visited both the Baron and his wife.
The first time that Karmilla's parents directly introduced her to a knight, she was eleven years old. This knight, she had never seen before. All the rest had worn silver or iron armour; this knight's armour was red as blood. He stood as tall as her father, grey-haired and bearded. His blue eyes were a quiescent storm of ready laughter and waiting fury in equal measure.
“Karmilla,” her mother said, “this is the Lord Protector, Sir Taran Denebar. He is the greatest of knights, and he is here to see you.”
Karmilla only realised after a long pause that a response was expected. “Why?” she asked at last.
The red-armoured giant, Sir Denebar, chuckled before he replied, “Because your father too is a very great knight, and I would meet the child that will one day assume his land and duties. We must discuss your life in the meantime. Walk with me.”
Karmilla followed Sir Denebar along the lake shore and towards the treeline. Her parents paced ten yards behind them; Karmilla sensed them without having to look back, and both Karel and Lyssa Tate walked soundlessly.
“Do you understand what your mother told you of me?” Denebar asked, and Karmilla shook her head.
“I see. They call me the Lord Protector, which I suppose you can take at face value; I am the Lord and guardian of the Realm of Kellia and Silveneir. And it is to me that all knights of the Realm owe fealty. But there are three knights who stand full square with me, and of these your father is one. That is why he does not bow to me, nor answer me unless he wishes, for he is the Headsman of Vale, and no lesser law than the Lord Protector himself.”
This was the longest speech Karmilla had ever heard. She marvelled at the ease with which Sir Denebar spoke, his attention roving from her to the woodlands to the open sky, and always the calm, assured, easy yet courtly speech, rolling from his bearded lips.
“Only one command may I give to the Headsman, and that is to let fly his sword. And if, as his heir in this Realm where men and women stand equal in law, you are one day to succeed him, then you must first learn, as he did, the ways of the sword. What has he taught you?”
“To watch,” Karmilla said, simply. “To listen. To be still.”
Denebar nodded, apparently satisfied. “The time is come that you ask him to teach you. In five years, I shall return, and take you to the next of those other knights who stand equal to your father and I. But first a test, to be sure I am not mistaken. Have you ever seen a dragon, Karmilla?”
She of course had not, but from the overheard words of other knights to come before, she had learned what a dragon was. Her father had slain one, long ago, in the earliest days of the Witch War. The names of other dragonslayers she had learned, though none had ever visited; the knights who sometimes came to see Karel Tate spoke in awe of the dragonslayers: Saint Sabra Daishen, who slew the firebird of Avellar; Lady Neroven Varrinor, that slew the drake at Silveneir; Great Sir Kirin Baltu, who beheaded the wyrm of Narillion,; and Montesinos DeKellia, the greatest of them all, who had slain the Warmaster Tor Enlad when that sorcerer-king cast away his human shape, and joined battle in dragon-form.
Karmilla, who had learned to question by observation, was so caught by wondering to which of these the Lord Protector meant to send her, that she quite forgot to answer his question directly.
Sir Denebar grinned, and beckoned her onward through the trees. Soon they came to a clearing that Karmilla knew well; she had played there all the days of her childhood. Now the place would never be the same. A dragon waited in the clearing, a great grey-scaled wyrm half-filling the open ground. It stirred as Denebar and Karmilla emerged from the trees. Lifting its great saurian head, the dragon stretched and cricked its tail, shook the long spines on its back and flexed its leathern wings.
With hypnotic grace, the huge head swung around and levelled lambent eyes the size of dinner plates on the interlopers in the glen.
“Gargouille!” Denebar yelled, waving up at the dragon. “Look who I've got here! Karel Tate's sprog.”
The dragon's head came in closer, barely a yard away from Karmilla. The beast's hot breath snorted a sulphurous gust over her. The huge eyes dilated, focussing in close.
“Say hello,” Denebar suggested.
“Hello, Sir Dragon,” Karmilla said.
“Hello, human child.” The dragon's voice was a hiss, resonant still from the beast's broad chest. “But my name is not 'Dragon'. I am Gargouille. And I am not 'Sir'; if we are to be formal, then I am properly Great Sir Gargouille, the Baron Karkossa, Lord High Treasurer of The Realm, Flight-Marshal of the Eastern Watch and Minister of Internal Revenue. To my own people, I am His Royal Highness the Crown-Prince Draconis Imperialis Magisterum.”
“My loyal steed,” Denebar grinned and patted the dragon affectionately.
“Indeed,” Gargouille replied with indignant sarcasm, “my Lord Protector.”
Denebar growled and shot the dragon a glare, only to turn his attention back to Karmilla.
“Well, you didn't wet yourself or burst into tears, and I've seen grown men do both when eye-balling a dragon. You'll do, Karmilla. Tell your father I'll be back in five years, and if he says you're ready, you'll get to ride a dragon.”