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Quest for the Silver Shard

The key to taking a good beating is staying upright. You might think those fists hurt, but they are as gentle as kisses compared with a riding boot to the face. Admittedly, I have a lot less experience with kissing, but when it comes to being kicked, I'm an expert.

Stay standing, cover your face, and use your forearms to protect your body. Before you know it, your attackers will be sweaty, bored and moving on to more interesting diversions.

Unfortunately, if your abuser is Dragonfly Royalborn, Prince of the Realm, and his cronies, then it's a different story.

Dragonfly is a bastard of the highest order and like all bastards, he knows the best ways to get you on the ground. At this point, seeing his pale, classical features sneering down over your prone form, it's tempting to do something stupid. However, quickly smother this urge.

Think of your father trying to stay stoical as they put the rope around your neck. Imagine your mother weeping over a traitor's grave. This will help. Most of the time. If you have neither parent, like myself, then just picture that smirk being the last thing you see. The punishment for striking a royal, after all, is death.

On the bright side, if you've managed to stay upright for a while, the young lordlings will be fairly tired before you hit the ground. Beating someone is hard work, after all, even for those who ride the Green.

Again, being a bastard, Dragonfly has an impressive amount of energy for inflicting pain, but it's still much easier to avoid one nobleman's spurs than several.

Roll around so he can't get a good kick in, and protect your hands. Spurs have a nasty habit of ripping open your knuckles. 

Last word of advice: the real secret to getting through a beating is to think of something else. If you don't get beaten often, just focus on how nice it will be when nobody is kicking you in the face. If, sadly, that doesn't apply, then do what I do. Dream. Focus on that, and it'll all be over before you know it.

Unless you're really unlucky and you've just heard the love of your life yell: "Leave that poor boy alone!"

"I'm just disciplining the help, Rose. He scuffed one of my horse's wings," Dragonfly said.

I looked up. The Princess had her hands on her hips and an unfamiliar scowl on her face, as she spoke. "Last time, it was because he misplaced your riding crop. The time before that, you said he had an insolent eye!"

Dragonfly smirked, "It's so hard to find good servants these days."

His lackeys sniggered dutifully and Rose's scowl deepened. I cringed inside, wishing the ground would swallow me up.

"Leave him alone now, Dragon, or I'm telling Father."

Dragonfly glared briefly. "I'm done with him." He shrugged his shoulders. "Be careful with your new lover, Rose. I'd hate for you to get fleas."

As he walked away, I allowed myself the fantasy of braining him with the mucking-out spade, then I rolled onto my back. I let out a manly yelp when I saw how close the Princess's face was to mine.

How to describe her? I could tell you she is beautiful, but then, aren't all princesses?

I could say she looks much like her brother, but that would be a lie. True, they are of a similar height; both have pale skin and honey-blonde hair and matching orange coloured eyes. Yet the truth is, despite these similarities, they look nothing alike.

Her eyes are kind; his are cold. Her mouth is always curved into a half-smile, as if she's just heard a joke she wants to share; his is locked in a perpetual scowl, waiting to take offence. 

I love her because her face is an open window into a warm home; whilst his is a prison door, slammed shut. There is no guile with her. She is a woman who laughs often, loves deeply, and despite being as lofty as an angel, will kneel with paupers like me. I had the sudden compulsion to reach up and kiss her.

Two suicidal thoughts within a minute. A new record.

"Are you ok?" she asked.

"Mehar. Gah. Yes… Highness," I said wittily.

My heart thudded hard in my chest. Too overwhelmed to speak, perfectly aware of what an ass I looked.

She went to take my arm and I startled, foolishly. She, too, flinched, and gave a sheepish smile.

"Thank you, that was… kind," I said, looking down, wishing that I had a courtier's skill with words, rather than a talent for shovelling horse dung.

"It's quite alright. My brother can be a terrible brute, sometimes. It's not fair, how he treats you."

I drolly nodded my head like a cow.

After an awkward silence, the Princess, embarrassed by my stupidity, said, "Well… I'd better be going. Take care." She smiled and left.

I lay on the floor, wishing I could go back to those happier times when Prince Dragonfly was trying to kick me in the fruits.

Just as I was replaying the part when she called me 'poor boy', a deep voice called out: "Have you finished brushing down the horses, Briar?"

Oak, my guardian, strode into the stables. Frowning at my bruised and prone form, he asked, "What was their excuse this time?"

"Does it matter?" I said, getting up, relieved to find nothing broken.

Oak shook his head. "No, it doesn't. You need to keep your head down, Briar."

I seethed with a half-dozen clever things to say, but said nothing. It was a familiar argument; one we'd trodden so many times, each of us knew the other's steps. Besides, if I passed the trials tomorrow it wouldn't matter.

Oak's frown softened. "We're out of saddle oil. Pick some up from the market, will you? Barter well and there could be a coin in it for you…"

He held out a small pouch as he spoke. I resisted the urge to snatch it from his hand, but it was a close thing.

Oak handed me the coin purse, smiling. "Don't dilly-dally all day, though. I'll have chores for you when you get back and they'll have to be done, however late you return," he warned.

I nodded, taking the purse and dashing out of the stables.

I'm fortunate, I know. I enjoy working with the horses and although Oak is a hard taskmaster, he's also a fair one—kindly, even. When I was young, he told me my mother had died in childbirth and my father, a castle soldier, had died bravely fighting against Aodh's enemies.

I appreciated that he omitted telling me my father had left my mother shortly after my conception and hadn't in fact died until long after my birth, evidently uninterested in seeing me. Dragonfly had saved all that as a birthday present. 

Many orphans have it worse than me. I can read and write; most castle servants can't.

Yet, no matter how good things are, if it wasn't for the occasional day trip to the market and my midnight practice sessions, the stables would suffocate me.

The Builders hadn't rethreaded the old bridge outside the stables. Warily, I put my foot on it, and the thick grey ropes gave an ominous creak. I looked down into the Green. It was a long drop if the bridge snapped, but I would probably survive it, injured and easy prey for the monsters below. Shuddering, I considered finding another bridge, since the Builders had woven several throughout the Green, but the nearest was still a fair distance away.

I took another step forward, and then another, both hands firmly grasping the sides of the bridge. It made various noises of complaint, but I crossed without issue.

There were several more bridges between the stables and the market but they'd all been repaired recently with fresh strands of silk, although one of them did sink low into the Green. Crossing that bridge, I saw a behemoth beneath me, its huge body the colour of night. The creature left a trail of acidic slime in its wake as it slithered below, its tentacled eyes gazing at me hungrily. I hurried across into the market, grateful it couldn't reach me.

The stalls moved around, from day to day, but the horse merchant and his herd were easy to find. Acorn Sellsmith, the trader, gave me a good price for the oil—more out of charity than skill on my part, I suspect, but it left me with a few coins.

I looked around the open market; the colourful clothing stalls enticed me. I had never owned anything new, but ultimately, it would be a waste of money since some of the other castle servants kindly donated their old clothes to Oak and me.

A sweet shop I frequented as a kid emitted a tempting aroma of bananas and honey. However, there was really only one taste I was interested in.

My eyes adjusted slowly to the gloom in the Nettle Tavern. The Nettle gives dives a bad name, but it's cheap and the owner doesn't feel the urge to inform Oak of my patronage.

The bartender frowned at me in greeting and I put my coins on the splintered wood. Nodding, he swiped them away and poured out a pint of cider.

The cider was cold, tart and not watered down. The first sip was refreshing. A few more, and my head swam pleasantly. I moved away from the bar, intending to take a seat by the window, when I heard the strumming of an instrument.

A minstrel sat by the dead log fire in the corner, tuning an ancient lute. His cataract-clouded eyes took in their dim surroundings, then he drew in a breath. "Long ago, a man on a fast horse could ride all year and not cover the lands of Aodh," the minstrel sang out, his voice rich and clear, belying his frail frame. "The time was golden. Father Sun shone brighter, Mother Moon loved warmer. The crops bountiful, the people free. Then the giants came..."

I sighed; disappointed. It was an old tale, arguably the oldest story in Aodh, and I had heard it a hundred times before. I went back to the window, seeking distraction.

"Our lands were rent apart and torn with their wooden walls. Their tame dragons, like Treeroar, devoured the Green, murdering folk by the hundreds."

I attempted to ignore the bard's drone, with some difficulty. His voice carried well across the bar, and it reminded me of the harsh realities I would face if I passed the trials tomorrow. A few heroic swallows of cider helped.

Just as I was about to down the rest of my drink, Rose walked past the window. Two handmaidens flanked her, leaning in and laughing at something she said. The brief flash of white teeth caused my heart to stop and my feet to go. Her blonde hair flashed in the sunlight as she went around the corner. I followed.

I'll admit I didn't have a plan, and I will accept that stalking a Princess was unwise, even by my low standards, but she was magnetic, and I consisted only of iron filings. Looking at her face hurt my heart, but it was an addictive, sweet ache that I couldn't get enough of.

Yes, I truly appreciate how utterly pathetic I am.

I trailed after them as they walked through the market, Rose stopping every so often to talk to the stall owners, but rarely purchasing anything.

I'm not sure how long I would have continued to embarrass myself if I hadn't spotted Dragonfly and his men, reflected in a market stall mirror, stalking me in turn. I was lucky. If Dragonfly really knew how to hurt me, he could simply have alerted Rose to my presence. Thankfully, he probably just wanted to beat me again. I moved through the market as if I hadn't spotted them. Whilst it was true Dragonfly could legally beat me to death here if he so chose, it would be seen as terribly gauche to do so.

Making a sudden right, I headed towards the rear of the market. Reaching the last stall, I broke into a run, the sound of rapid moving feet echoing behind me.

I hit the first bridge fast, ignoring the rails, and it swayed violently. I glanced back; the nobles had slowed, approaching cautiously, but Dragonfly charged past them, pounding up the bridge, a wild grin on his face. Gulping, I ran up the road.

The second bridge was much older. I would have to take it carefully, but Dragonfly was catching up and I could hear him close behind. Soon his boot would be on my neck. Jumping onto the bridge, I half-expected it to snap under my weight, so when it held, the shock almost stopped me short. But I ran across, praying that Dragonfly wouldn't be so foolish as to follow me. The increased frantic swaying and tortuous creaking of the bridge told me otherwise. Drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, I made it to the other side, and forced myself onwards.

The next bridge had been woven recently. I charged across. There was no dangerous swaying, no ominous creaking—just a silent snap as the bridge floated down into the Green. Survival overcame shock and I leapt forwards, making it comfortably to the other side.

Dragonfly was less lucky. He, too, dived, but his hands just grasped the ledge. The Prince hung over a fatal drop, only the strength in his arms keeping him alive.

He looked up at me balefully. I looked down at him. We were alone. I considered it. Let's leave it there.

I offered him my hand, but he just stared. "How do I know you're not going to let me drop?"

I shrugged. "If you want to wait for alternative help, be my guest."

Dragonfly scowled, but took my hand and I pulled him up. We both lay panting on the ground getting our breath back. He stood up, over me until finally he asked, "Why?"

I scrambled up, too. I'd been on the receiving end of the Prince's boots too many times to feel confident of lying at his feet.

"It was the… right thing to do." I felt myself cringe as I said it, like a hero from a third-rate bard's tale, but the truth is often cliché.

Dragonfly continued to look at me, a puzzled frown on his face. The muscles around his mouth squirmed as if he had eaten something foul. Eventually, Dragonfly muttered, "Thank… you."

I would have been less surprised if Treeroar had landed next to me and proclaimed me King of Dragons. The Prince looked to be in actual pain, and I wondered how often, in his life, he had said those words.

He gave a stiff nod and walked away, quickly. My head swam with what this might mean, but I quickly cleared it. Beatings from the Prince might be on the decline in future, but Oak was still liable to take the strap to me if I didn't get home, sharpish.

At the stable, as expected, Oak was not happy with my prolonged absence, especially when he smelt cider on my breath. Luckily, he had more than enough work for me to do as my penance, rather than adding to my already impressive array of bruises.

The Sun had long given up his reign and his wife, the Moon, was high above, before I finished that night. My body ached all over and sleep called loudly, but it was my last chance to practice.

Silently, I crept to the hay bale store where Oak and I slept. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light and I saw my guardian's chest rising and falling, rhythmically. Quietly, I went over to the horse stalls and approached Giant's Bane.

He buzzed softly, recognising the need to keep quiet as well as me. Opening the paddock door, I stepped inside, running my hand over his thick black and yellow coat. Bane's wings thrummed appreciatively until I hushed him quiet. My earliest memory was of the war horse towering over me, then leaning down to softly lick my face. A hulking, gentle god. Now, there was a heavy scattering of white hairs amongst the black. His large frame sagged slightly, his former limber grace starting to fail.

I fed Bane a pilfered honey cube, saddled him, and leapt on. "Ride, Giant's Bane. Ride," I whispered into his ear.

We shot into the night sky, the Moon and stars rapidly nearing as we soared upwards. I laughed delightedly, unable to keep it in. As long as I live, I will always love this.

Then, Bane dived down towards the Green and I giggled, half-horrified, half-excited. The Moon, bathed in starlight, lit up the ground—every blade of Green in sharp focus.

I was about to put my heels in, but Bane levelled off naturally and sprinted just over the tips of the Green. Then the horse started to slow, tired from his own antics, his buzzing becoming static. I stroked him gently. When he had recovered, I took him slowly through a simple routine, not wishing to exert him again, so close to the big day.

Towards the end of our exercises, I found myself guiding him towards the giant's castle. The structure was so colossal in size that calling it a 'castle' seemed laughable, like calling an ocean a pool of spilt cider. The giant's stone fortifications towered several times taller than the huge wooden walls that split Aodh. Strange ethereal lights flickered from the castle's colossal windows, competing with the Moon's glow for dominance.

I saw that one of the windows was ajar, and for a moment, I was tempted to fly inside. Few returned—none in my lifetime—but it was hard to resist the pull of curiosity. As a child, I had heard several stories about the castle: tales of fabulous treasures, huge gemstones, mountains of strange and delicious foods. However, if you were caught trespassing, the giants would crush you and make bread from your bones.

Shaking my head, I guided Bane home, thoughts of giants weighing heavily on my mind. As they would on my body.

No lights shone in the stable as I landed, and only silence greeted me. I quietly moved Bane to his stall and was just about to unsaddle him, when I heard the rasp of flint behind me. With a sigh, I turned, the glaring bright light making me wince. As my eyes adjusted, I saw Oak's grim visage frowning down at me, a freshly lit lamp in his hand.

"Any chance you'd believe I was just taking him for a walk?" I asked.

"I thought I told you to give up this nonsense."

"It's not nonsense, Oak," I said trying to keep my voice level. "I have as much chance of joining the Green Riders as any noble does."

He snorted. "Name me one peasant Green Rider and I'll give you Bane, right now."

His derision needled me, but I took a deep breath and continued calmly, "Other lowborns don't have access to the horses, like I do. They don't work with them by day; they don't train with them by night. King Raven says that any man who is good enough can join the Riders."

Oak laughed. "How many beatings is it going to take until you learn, Son? The Royals have a different idea of 'good' to you and me. To them, 'good' means 'noble'. You need to stay here with your own kind. Here-"

 "Stay here?" I yelled. "And do what? Clean up horse shit all my life? Bow and scrape for every nobleman who wants to put their boot into me? Wait until their bastard spawn get old enough to do the same?"

Oak looked at me, shocked. I should have stopped there. A wise man would have taken a deep breath and walked away, but an acidic bitterness swept through me, and it felt good—freeing.

 "Yes, stay here!" I laughed, looking around the stables. "One day, this grand kingdom can all be mine. I can be just like you, Oak. An old man, ruling a dung heap, too weak to try for something better. Too cowardly to even protect his adopted son!" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

My fiery righteousness quickly turned to ashes in my throat. Oak's face paled, and I waited for the deluge of anger—the strap, anything—please. His body shook, and his lips rubbed together as if he had forgotten how to speak. Eventually, he turned his back on me and walked away.

I took a step towards him, anguished, but then I stopped. It is said that you can sooner get back a vast fortune stolen from you than take back a single word you gave away. There was nothing I could do to fix this.

Sighing, I went back to Bane's stall and, feeling even guiltier than I already did, led him back out. What was a little theft, on top of everything else?

I flew Bane to the parade grounds on top of the mountain near Royalborn Castle. The mountain was in full bloom, with dense green leaves making it difficult to navigate, especially as I'd never been here before. Personally, I was glad of it, the hard ride taking my mind off Oak, if only vaguely.

The Sun, as usual, was trying to catch his wife sleeping, but she was already fading away, wise to his tricks. In the early morning light, I flew past the guards at the castle, close enough to be recognised. I waved nonchalantly, enjoying their open-mouthed gazes. Within an hour, my attempt to join the Riders would be the talk of the city. I was vain enough for it to give me a slight thrill.

I landed Bane on the grounds, then slunk down wearily, lying against his back. My intention was to stay awake for the last few hours, until the competition started. 

A bugle trumpeting nearby startled me awake, telling me I had failed. I looked around blearily, to find that the faint light of dawn had grown into a brilliant summer's day while I slept. Several other riders, all from noble houses, had positioned their horses next to mine. It seemed, having seen my horse first, they had assumed this was the official starting point and had joined me, accordingly. Their banners flew in the wind: a sea of blues, reds and yellows; the sun glinting off their armour. I was painfully aware of my outgrown jerkin, heavily patched and stained with the ordure of working in a busy stable.

A brass band started to play and I saw the other aspirants look up at the sky. Following their gazes, I saw four horses descending—but these were no ordinary beasts. Grand as Bane was, these steeds made him look like a stingerless nag.

Dragonfly rode Star Stealer: the fastest horse in the kingdom, darker than the night's sky. Sunshine, Rose's mount, was a giant thoroughbred with thick yellow and orange striped fur, bred for comfort and beauty. The other two horses, I didn't recognise; but I was not kept in suspense long, as King Raven himself came into view. I had not seen him before, but I could see both Dragonfly and Rose in his features. Also, he was wearing a crown—that helped. King Raven looked down from his vantage point, his expression stern as he surveyed us, dark hair waving in the wind.

I didn't recognise the King's companion at first, although his green glass armour marked him as a Green Rider. Then I saw the scars on his face: three deep streaks slashed down his left cheek. Captain Jackdaw Green was always a bard's favourite. Everyone knew of the wounds he had gained whilst single-handedly defending the city against a behemoth attack.

"Men!" Jackdaw said, his voice booming out high above us. "Thank you for coming today. You have shown great courage in attending. The life of a Green Rider is dangerous and often short. Recently…" Jackdaw paused and to my horror, he was staring at me.

"Boy!" he cried. "Where is your Master? If he wishes to join the Green Riders, he must be here on time—not sending lackeys to stand in his stead."

I blushed. "Actually…"

"What are you doing here?" Dragonfly exclaimed, appalled. "The Green Riders is for nobility only!"

His words kindled my anger, helping me to find a spine. "I have no Master!" I announced, my throat dry. "I am Briar Stablekin, and it is my right, regardless of birth, to face the trials."

Realising that I was no one's servant, the noble's stares turned baleful and started to call out:

"Leave, peasant!"

"Call the guard! Where's the guard?"

"Get gone, or face my whip!"

I looked around for support. Dragonfly sneered. Rose went to speak to the King, but her father stilled her with a wave of his hand. The King, my only hope, looked at me, frowning.

I got down on my knees and spoke from the heart: "Sire, you claim that all men through right of arms have the chance to elevate themselves. To rise from peasant to Knight of the Green. Keep your word, Sire, and you will find no more loyal Rider than me!"

The King turned away, impassive, and I knew my dreams were dust. Oak was right.

Then, the great man looked me in the eye and exclaimed, "Let it not be said that the king does not honour his word." A great muttering began amongst those assembled as he continued: "Very well, child… You may take part in the trials."

A swell of outrage grew in the crowd and the King's face hardened. "Silence! I am King and my word is law! Who dares gainsay me?"

The upsurge of complaints died instantly. King Raven glared at the nobles before nodding at Captain Jackdaw to proceed.

"As I was saying," continued Jackdaw. "Recently, our spies infiltrated the giant's castle. A survivor returned this morning."

The nobles murmured. No spy had ever made it into the giant's castle and come back alive. "We've been able to confirm that the giant has acquired… a longer leash."

The nobles started talking excitedly among themselves. I just stood there, stunned. No-one understood the dragons, but they had one thing in common—although they struggled to do so, the creatures couldn't break their red leashes. The Green Riders defended Cirro heroically, but if Treeroar had a longer leash, few doubted that the city would soon fall.

"Quieten down, men!" Jackdaw commanded. "This is why it is good to see so many of you here today, because…" The Captain trailed off, clearly struggling to find the words to finish his sentence.

"It's why the trials are going to be… easier this year. We need every man who can ride competently."

My honest reaction was to feel cheated. I had spent several long spans training, preparing for this moment. I had expected to be challenged, to be stretched to my limits.

The nobles, studiously ignoring me now, seemed happy. For the most part, they just wanted to join the Riders for the glass armour and to brag to girls. The only one who shared my disappointment was Dragonfly, who looked furious—mostly at the possibility of me getting into the Riders.

"Therefore," Jackdaw continued, "there will be one trial. You will leave these parade grounds, and circle the entirety of Aodh, your horses' wings almost brushing the giant's walls, taking you directly past the brute's castle. You will be expected to evade all creatures and complete the circuit within an hour."

I almost snorted. This wasn't a trial. It was a donkey run! I had done similar as a child, but I focused on the positives. I would become the first peasant, ever, to be elevated to the Green. I would become Briar Green and considered as nobility. Dizzyingly, I even fantasized about romancing Rose, but swiftly accepted that King Raven's egalitarian instincts would only go so far. Probably.

When Jackdaw gave the signal, I was so lost in thought I barely heard it, only alerted by the buzz of my neighbour's horse.

We set off. Despite my certainty of completing the course, I felt nervous. I might have trained each day, but these nobles had been riding since birth and Bane was getting old. Making the Green was one thing, but if I was last across the finish line on an easy trial, I'd be 'the peasant who lucked into the Riders'.

Refusing to let my thoughts cower me, I gave Bane my heels. He didn't disappoint. Age might have diminished some of his bulk, but he was still the largest war horse I had ever seen. Bane didn't go 'round the other horses, but through them, the nobles crying out in dismay as I barged past them. I laughed, bringing Bane into a loop-the-loop as we rounded the first corner of the kingdom, Bane buzzing happily.

Passing the giant's window, I thought I saw a dark blur that might have been the beast, but it was gone too quickly to be sure.

Bane was having the run of his life, competing against horses half his age—the best in the land. Only one steed was ahead of him and we were gaining, fast.

Dragonfly looked back at me briefly, then his head snapped forward. I grinned. If I could beat Dragonfly, every punch, every kick would have been worth it.

With a loud cry, I urged my beautiful Bane on even faster. Closer. Closer still. We were going to take him! We were going to beat the Prince and the fastest horse in the realm! Bane and Briar! What a team!

Really, I shouldn't have been surprised when a dart stabbed into Bane's back. All I could do was stare at the bleeding hole, until another stinger plunged into Bane's head and we were plummeting.

I numbly wondered who could hate us so much that they'd rather see us dead than make the Green. Knowing the nobles—all of them. The Green raced up to meet me. Deep in the wild lands of Aodh, my corpse would never be recovered, eaten by wandering monsters. I struggled to care as I fell with the body of my oldest friend.

Then, I wasn't falling. I was flying, backwards, the rear of another horse beneath me. I looked around, confused, and saw that Dragonfly's back was against mine. He must have looped back round, to catch me on his horse's hind quarters.

Dragonfly's turned his head. "We're even."

Back at the parade ground, I made a token effort to complain, but my heart wasn't in it. Bane was dead and it hurt worse than anything I had ever felt. Dragonfly only said he'd seen my horse fall; the other nobles said nothing. I had failed the trial. The King and Captain Green struggled to hide their relief. Proof that the peasant boy didn't belong.

I began the long descent home. As I scaled down the mountain, its rough bark cut my hands, but I hardly noticed. The night was old by the time I stood on the threshold of the stables and for the first time in several hours, I felt something other than numbness and blood dripping down my fingers.

Oak would be in there. He would have heard by now and would know I was a failure. That I had killed his most valuable possession. I didn't know if I could survive seeing him right now, but… I had nowhere else to go.

Candlelight flickered in the stable, Oak sat on a bale of hay, facing towards the door. Seeing me, he frowned, unspeaking, then, silently, he offered me his flask.

I wanted to throw myself into his arms like a child, and hold him; to breathe in the smells of the stables, oiled leather and horses; to feel safe and protected; but it passed. I took the flask from his hand.

"I thought you didn't drink," I said, choking as I swallowed down the burning liquor. 

Oak smiled ruefully. "I try not to make a habit of it. More than one man has found that my drinking doesn't agree with them," he said, cracking his scarred knuckles.

I chuckled, despite myself, and handed it back to him. "I'm… sorry," I said. The words were pathetic, but all I had to offer.

Oak frowned pensively, his shoulders heavy. "Kid, nearly all words can be forgiven. In fact, the more love there is between two people, the easier it is to forgive. Problem is—that same love makes it much harder to forget." 

My parting words to Oak weighed like a boulder on my heart. "I wasn't thinking, Oak. I was just mad. I meant none of those things. You've been nothing but wonderful to me and you were right—completely right. My place is here. From now on, I promise, I'm going to knuckle down and stay in the stables, where I belong."

Oak's frown deepened and he let out a sigh, saying: "Son, have you ever heard of Lark Green?"

"Well, yes," I said, surprised at the sudden change of subject. "He was a great hero, long ago."

Oak snorted. "It wasn't that long ago! He was alive when I was a boy. Regardless, he had a sword called the Silver Shard—giant-forged, sharp as regret, stronger than a mother's love."

"Everybody knows about the Silver Shard, Oak. Why are…"

"The sword was lost when Lark attempted to slay the demon, Dark Claw, and take its horde. Many believe that the blade is still in the creature's lair. The greatest lost treasure of the Green Riders—bet they'd do anything to get that back."

"Ok, sure. I still don't understand why you're telling me any of this."

Oak stopped speaking for several moments, looking into the candle flame. Finally, he said, "I loved a girl, once. A long time ago. I know what it's like to want something; to go for it. To fail… I wish someone had told me, back then, that there was nothing stopping me from trying again."

I was shocked. Oak never talked about himself. "What happened to the girl? Why didn't you try again?"

Oak looked down at the floor and sighed. "She met someone else… then… she died." Oak lifted himself from the hay bale. "I'm going to bed. Prince Dragonfly brought in his horse earlier, so give it a brush down before you turn in," he said, pointedly, before disappearing deeper into the stables.

I sat, unsure if Oak had really hinted at what I suspected. I went into Star Stealer's stall and saw that the stallion was already saddled. I hesitated. Stealing a horse was punishable by death, and considering Dragonfly's rages, death might be preferable. On the other hand, with Bane dead, I would have no other opportunity to attempt this and if Treeroar's leash really was longer, this could be the city's only chance.

I approached Star Stealer carefully. He knew me, but I had never attempted to ride him before. I put a hand on his side, feeling him buzz sleepily against it. Fishing out some dried honey cubes, I fed them to him, his mandibles moving sleepily at first, then more decisively as he consumed the sticky sugar. His gentle purr turned into a high-pitched whine that was certain to have woken Oak, if he hadn't been feigning sleep.

I slid onto his saddle, motioning him with my heels out into the night. Outside the air was slightly chilled, a crisp freshness on my face. The familiar giddy thrill of flying under moonlight instantly felt like a betrayal of Bane.

We travelled over the Green, the moonlight turning it silver, Dark Claw's Mountain, an ivory tower, fast approaching. The monster's lair was not difficult to spot: a dark tangle of broken wood, swollen like a cancer against the mountain's white skin.

Stealer and I hovered above the monster burrowed in his den, almost impossible to see, completely black from claw to savage beak. I was just thankful that his dark eyes were shut. I quietened Stealer as best as I could, before approaching cautiously. I tied up Stealer, who buzzed uneasily; I placed a calming hand against his flank, afraid to risk soothing words.

Up close, the beast was gigantic, its breath a fierce, rank wind. I had hoped that the Silver Shard would be easily visible for a quick snatch and grab, but the monster's huge bulk entirely covered its den. I had little doubt that Claw was sleeping on his treasures.

Having to do something is not the same as accepting it. I took several deep breaths before I buried myself in the creature's feathers. The monster's foul breath was nothing compared to its body odour. Its oily feathers greased me as I burrowed deeper. Suddenly, I lost my footing and plummeted, the feathers' resistance giving way. To stop my scream, I bit the inside of my cheeks, drawing blood. My face slammed into splintered wood, my hands frantically grasping for purchase.

It took me a second to realise I hadn't fallen off the mountain, but was on a mostly flat surface, with Dark Claw directly above me, sleeping soundly. I was at the bottom of his lair, surrounded by piles of precious metals and gems the size of houses—some even larger. A portrait of some ancient queen's face, engraved in metal, glared at me like a vengeful goddess. In amongst it all lay the Silver Shard, gleaming even brighter than the other treasures.

I approached it reverently. It was big: far too large to be a sword, three times my size, it was more a lance. I hesitantly touched its edge, which was smooth and rounded. The point, though, was as sharp as Oak had said.

A snicker sounded behind me, and I turned. A vampire stared at me with hungry black eyes, its long brown fangs twitching. The creature leapt forward, its six powerful legs covering the length of Claw's lair in one bound. This time, I couldn't contain my scream; only instinct saving me, as I dived out of the way at the last second, the monster sailing past me.

I scrambled up and attempted to lift the Shard, but by the two gods, was it heavy! The vampire whirled round, the abomination moving quicker than its plump body should have allowed. I swerved and needle-sharp teeth darted past my shoulder. I dropped the blade and slammed my elbow back blindly, taking satisfaction from the sound of breaking cartilage.

I turned around to see one of the vampire's fangs hanging by a thread, bloody red ichor leaking out. It howled in anger, its remaining teeth almost raking my cheek. With a yell, I punched the monstrosity in the face, feeling its fangs break. After two more blows, it tried to flee, but I didn't let it, relishing an opponent I was permitted to hit in return. I pounded upon its body until it stopped moving. The creature dead, I moved quickly. Vampires always travelled in packs.

The ground shook violently as Dark Claw awakened, pitching me to the floor, moonlight spilling onto the Silver Shard lying next to me. With great difficulty, I hoisted the lance onto my shoulder and took off, breathing heavily, in a shambling run towards Star Stealer.

The monster cawed loud enough to wake the dead. Not literally—the vampire didn't even twitch—but enough to make my ears ring.

Sweat mingling with blood, I huffed towards Stealer, when a beak, blacker than sin, smashed through the splintered wood, a hand's breadth from me.

Dark Claw's terrible black eyes were open now and glared at me malevolently before its head darted forward, beak wide. I dropped to one knee, and it sailed past, close enough to tear my jerkin. The beak jerked back, ready to strike again. Grunting, I brought the lance around, bracing the haft against my shoulder.

I shifted to the left, the demon's strike just missing me, but mine going deep into its neck. The monster screamed, thrashing around violently. I tried to hold on to the Shard in vain, but with another cry, Claw threw me to the ground before taking off into the sky, the lance still stuck in its neck.

Shocked into stillness, I watched the Silver Shard disappear forever. I ran to Star Stealer, thankfully unharmed during the battle, and untied him. Well aware that this was the dumbest thing I would ever do, I gave chase. Claw shot into the air, a black arrow heading straight for the moon and I followed, higher than I'd ever been before, the air frosty. Stealer's buzzing weakened as we gained altitude.

"Come on, brave one," I murmured. "Just a little more. Time to be heroes."

Whether the horse understood or not, still he climbed. Eventually, Dark Claw levelled out and we left the land of Aodh behind us. Looking down, I could see just how far the giants had taken over the lands of men: their wooden walls criss-crossed the earth, dividing it into fiefdoms; their palaces stood tall and proud. The Green was reduced to a patch of shallow carpet. I hated the giants even more, then. Before, it had been an abstract thing, like hating the rain. Now, it was real.

Dark Claw started to slow down and we gained on the beast. Alas, it was a trap. The monster arched high in the air, and twisted round with a triumphant caw. Stealer saved us both, veering to the side sharply, as a razor-like beak sliced past us. Claw whirled round and we plunged away into the heart of an extinct kingdom.

Claw gave chase, its breath close enough to warm me in the frigid air. I pulled Stealer up sharply, aiming him towards the foreign giant's castle, so that Claw had to circle around, giving us valuable breathing room; but not much.

Soon, it was on us again, the foul air of death close by. I was still aiming for the castle, looming closer, but I felt an intake of breath—a tensing, a surge—very near, behind us. Digging my heels in hard, I pulled Stealer vertical at the last minute, the horse's legs whispering across the giant's glass window.

Claw wasn't so quick. The loud crack of bones rent the night air as the demon slammed into the window, its neck breaking.

I had expected to feel elation upon dispatching such a beast - a feat unrivalled by even our greatest heroes, but all I felt was exhaustion. Landing next to Claw, I planted my foot firmly on the monster's neck and pulled the Silver Shard free. Wiping it clean on Claw's body, I turned to Star Stealer, to find him done in from the night's flying and the day's trial.

I fed him a honey cube which he licked desolately. I managed to walk him a short distance away from the castle, but after that, he would go no further. I doubted I had it in me, either. I slumped down next to him, his broad back against mine. At some point, sleep claimed me. I don't know how long we would have stayed like that if Treeroar's howl hadn't startled us both awake.

My eyes snapped open to bright sunlight, my ears pounding from the monster's roar. Swinging my leg over Stealer's back, without a thought, we left the alien land behind us. The horse moved sluggishly after a night in the cold, but limbered up under the warmth of the Sun.

Soon we were back in Aodh. Below us, with his master guiding him, Treeroar cut deep into the Green. We raced ahead of the beast churning up the ground in its wake, slowly but brutally. Then, Cirro came into view, first as a speck, but growing quickly, thanks to Stealer's rapid pace. We passed Dark Claw's former home and soon I could see the city walls. Sailing over them, I headed towards the parade grounds, the mustering point of the Green Riders.

They had already assembled and Captain Green was shouting out frantic orders as I landed, the pandemonium allowing me to enter their midst without anyone noticing.

At this point, I was a little unsure what to do. Was I meant to heroically announce myself? Possibly wave the Silver Shard in the air, sunlight catching it in just the right way? Oh, gods... I wouldn't be expected to give a rousing battle speech, would I?

Thankfully, Dragonfly saved me, yelling, "Guards! Seize that thief!"

Although the Prince sat astride a magnificent new charger, by the look on his face, he didn't seem too pleased by his new purchase.

"Wait!" I cried.

To my surprise, the assembled crowd of noblemen and the oncoming guardsmen stopped and stared at me. This moment was crucial. Dragonfly had every right to have me hanged on the spot, so of course, my tongue decided to stop working. Mute as chalk, I grabbed the Silver Shard I had left resting upon Star Stealer's wing, and thrust the blade into the air.

"I have the Silver Shard," I said, somewhat unnecessarily. Various nobles started to mutter and lean forward to get a better look.

"Nonsense," said Dragonfly, sneering in derision. "The Shard is guarded by dread Dark Claw. You expect us to believe a stable boy, who couldn't even pass yesterday's trial, stole treasure from that beast?"

"Actually, I kind of… killed him…"

There was a moment of stunned silence until Dragonfly forced a laugh. "Ha! You must take us all for fools…" His words trailed off, and he stood open-mouthed.

Following his stunned gaze, I looked at the Shard and noted I hadn't done a very good job cleaning off Night Claw's blood. The Prince shook his head as if trying to break a daydream, and continued: "Regardless, you are a thief, and the punishment for…"

"Both of you will stop this idiocy immediately!" shouted Captain Green.

Dragonfly looked shocked. Being patronised was a first for him, I imagined. I had a lot more experience of this, naturally.

The Prince tried to speak, but the captain raised his hand to stop him, saying, "I am a loyal servant of the crown. If you wish to see me punished for insolence, I will bow my head. However, I am also the leader of Aodh's military, and its defence is my paramount concern. We need all the help we can get, whether from thief, hero or both. Therefore, you will accept this man to fly with us, now, or quit my service."

Everyone was silent, waiting fearfully for Dragonfly's reaction. I held my breath, my heart pounding. Emotions warred on the Prince's face, his body so rigid that his neck might snap. At any moment, I was sure the Prince would call for my head. The royal guards waited on his command, their hands resting on the hilts of their weapons. In our silence, the growl of Treeroar rumbled, an imposing threat.

"Yes, Captain," the Prince said, at last.

Captain Green nodded, relief flashing in his eyes. He ordered us to mount our steeds. We could hear Treeroar's howl getting louder, and closer.

"Elites, take the fight to him!" commanded Captain Green.

Scarred veterans, survivors of numerous battles with the giant, moved their haggard, wild-eyed, mounts forward. There weren't many of them. Silent as snow on the Green, they took off with grim determination. They quickly closed in on the giant, now half-way between his castle and our city. Sometimes a well-placed attack there could scare the monster back inside.

The veterans moved in fast, their mounts rearing up to reveal their stingers. Shot after shot was fired at the giant, but he didn't feel them, his clothes protecting his flesh. One brave rider aimed for the one part of the giant uncovered: his face, but before he could fire, the giant swiped at the rider's mount.

"GET AWAY FROM ME YOU LITTLE FUCKERS!" the giant's voice boomed across the Green.

It was a glancing blow, the horse quickly recovering, but its rider was thrown clear, the distance muting but not entirely silencing his fatal scream. As a company, we grimaced. I had never seen a man die before. The Elites were failing, and we would be sent in soon.

The Silver Shard was heavy, even resting on Stealer's wing, but its weight reassured me. The Elites fell back, one down, and the giant not even slowed. If it bothered them, their faces didn't show it, as they settled back into our ranks.

The giant was close now, Treeroar's shriek almost deafening, its giant maw almost upon the city.

"Company assemble!" yelled Captain Green. "Company attack!"

We rose, brothers for the moment.

Close up, the giant was truly monstrous: an abomination shaped much like a man, but with twisted features in unholy, gigantic proportions. Its already-thick hide was covered in dense clothes large enough to drown cities and impervious to all weapons—except, perhaps, one.

I pressed the Shard against my shoulder, tapped Stealer with my heels and charged into the giant's arm. The blow took my breath away, but the Shard pierced the cloth and I felt soft flesh give, underneath, blood decorating the blade.

The beast roared, "YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! YOU'VE HAD IT, NOW! I'M GOING TO FIND YOUR NEST AND BURN YOU ALL; YOUR QUEEN WITH YOU!"

I wondered what the Queen had done to earn his enmity; but his threats were useless: she had passed long ago. However, my thoughts were chased away by the frantic need to stay alive when the giant ruthlessly swiped at me. I veered away, to re-group.

Heartened by seeing giant's blood on my lance, the nobles cheered, and charged into battle, re-energised. A lucky swipe from the giant killed several, though, proving that courage was an over-rated commodity on the battlefield. Those remaining fought on, but the giant had bowed his huge head between equally huge shoulders, and covered his face with his arms, gripping his cuffs in his clenched palms. With his flesh no longer visible, our horses' stingers became useless.

I swooped back in, lance raised and struck again. He ground his large, horrible flat teeth together, but pushed on, regardless. Panicked, I realised he had made it to the very boundaries of the city walls! I watched in horror as they were devoured by Treeroar, hearing the terrified screams of the city guards before they were quickly cut short. It wasn't long before other citizens' screams joined them.

I stabbed at the beast repeatedly, but although he flinched and bellowed, he still came forwards, ripping Builders' bridges into nothingness and churning Oak's stables into mud. I prayed to Father Sun that Oak had made it out in time.

Unable to harm the giant, I flew downwards. Our city was lost and we couldn't stop the giant, but if I could wound Treeroar, I might give our citizens a chance to escape. 

The monster had no eyes that I could see. Its metallic hide was red, black and green. How metal could be alive was a mystery, but clearly it was and its roar was so loud, the vibrations shook my brain. No one had ever been this close to the demon before—and lived.

Tentatively, I stabbed at its metal body, unsurprised that there was no give in its hide. I flirted with despair: the demon was unkillable. Then I saw them: little grooves across the creature's body—holes from which Treeroar breathed. I flew into the lungs of the beast, the sight stranger than any I had ever seen before.

Tight bundles of multi-coloured rope in red, brown and yellow littered the creature's body. Encased in more metal, Treeroar's heart thrummed powerfully. Below me, something whirled too fast to make out what it was.

I couldn't reach Treeroar's heart, but I saw the colourful ropes that led into it. Perhaps they were the demon's veins? I stabbed through a red one, expecting blood. The Shard pierced all the way through—yet nothing came out. But before I could get disheartened, Treeroar's howl became a whimper.

Looking down, I saw that the fast-moving blur below was a gigantic metal blade. I watched it slowing further, Treeroar's whine fading and giving way to an eerie silence, making my ears ring. Treeroar was dead.

I couldn't believe it! Treeroar had been the boogieman that Oak had scared me with as a boy. Killing it felt like slaying every demon from childhood.

I shook myself out of my memories and pulled the Silver Shard free, but as the lance left the creature's veins, to my horror, it re-awakened. Treeroar's shriek filled the air, its gigantic bladed tooth rotating once more. Quickly, I shoved the blade back, and instantly, the beast died again.

I was trapped in indecision. I had no qualms about leaving the Silver Shard behind, but what was to stop the giant reviving his pet after I retreated?

Catching sight of a blur of motion my head darted to the right. Other monsters might be here! Dragonfly landed next to me, so I wasn't completely wrong.

"What are you doing, here?" I asked, rather stupidly.

Dragonfly looked around, lost in wonder, but it wasn't long before his customary smirk returned. "Couldn't have it said that a peasant boy was braver than me." He glanced around the dead beast. "Looks like you killed it. Well done."

For Dragonfly, that was the equivalent of tearfully fawning at my feet. I tried not to let it go to my head. It wasn't difficult.

"Not quite," I said. "If I remove the Shard, it comes back to life."

"I don't see the problem. Granted, it's a shame to lose…"

He was interrupted by our world turning upside down, literally. Treeroar rolled over onto its back, and Dragonfly and I, hurled over with it, just managing to stay in our saddles. The monster's huge maw pointed at the sky and I could see Father Sun beaming down upon us, his warm visage soon replaced by the grim face of the giant.

"BLOODY THING IS JAMMED AGAIN." The giant's massive hand reached into Treeroar's mouth, searching for us.

"Let's get out of here!" hissed Dragonfly.

I was about to, when something occurred to me. "I have a better idea. Gather our remaining forces. Attack the back of the giant's head, on my signal."

Dragonfly manfully wrestled with his prejudice against taking orders from a 'peasant' and, to my great surprise, defeated it. "What's the signal?" he asked.

"You'll know when you hear it."

Dragonfly nodded and I nearly put my hand out for a warrior's grasp, but decided that this might be pushing things. He took off, flying wide of the giant.

The monster continued to root around Treeroar's mouth, unaware of my hiding place. I watched his massive fumbling fingers, tension making it hard for me to count in my head. Upon reaching a hundred, enough time for Dragonfly to assemble the remnants of our forces, I gave the signal.

I pulled out the Shard, and Treeroar came back to life. Its first act was to bite the hand that fed it. The demon's metal tooth tore through the giant's fingers, drenching me in blood. The huge appendages ground into chunks of bone and gristle. Screeching, the giant raised his mangled stump in disbelief and the Green Riders attacked. I doubt he even felt the stings, with the pain of his mutilated hand, but the impact of several dozen riders was enough to knock the already-unbalanced monster face-first into Treeroar's vicious maw. The demon had no love for his former master, devouring him as easily as it had eaten the Green.

The giant let out one long shriek of pure agony before the blade cut through his tongue and it became more of a gurgle. Eyes, nose, flesh all became bloody mush: food for the Green.

Treeroar had bitten off more than he could chew. The giant's skull became jammed in the demon's bladed tooth, brains slopping over it, exuding a burning smell of bone. A tortured whine came from Treeroar that was almost piteous, followed by pungent smoke, and finally, stillness.

Aodh was safe. The monsters were dead.

The new jerkin made my neck itch, but Oak had assured me that however comfortable the old one was, you couldn't meet the king smelling like horse crap.

So, I concentrated on how fine I looked, all in white, washed clean of dung. Rather annoyingly, I was pretty sure that Dragonfly looked far better, his long blond curls resting on an orange doublet that matched his eyes. Seeing my look, he gave a slight nod from the dais, before staring straight ahead. His sister stood to the other side of their father, looking better than the two of us combined. I forgot to breathe when she smiled at me.

King Raven declared, "We are gathered here today to honour the extraordinary heroism of Briar Stablekin. As you all know, this hero recovered not only the Silver Shard from dread Night Claw, slaying the beast in single-handed combat, but also freed our kingdom from the tyranny of the giants!"

Oak looked out from the throng in the parade ground, and waved at me from the sea of people. It looked as if everyone in Cirro had turned out for me, and I felt my eyes moisten.

"Thanks to his heroism, the giant is dead and the Green already recovers. A time of glorious expansion is at hand! For these incredible achievements, I elevate him to the Green. From now on, he shall be recognised as noble as any man and friend of the Royalborn family."

Unsheathing his blade, the King gently tapped me on each shoulder, saying, "I knight thee Briar Green, member of the Green Riders and hero of Cirro!"

The crowd cheered mightily and I am not ashamed to say that a lump came to my throat.

"I still want my horse back, Stable Boy," muttered Dragonfly as he passed me, quickly removing it. I guess some things don't change, however high you rise.

I felt someone take my arm, and my heart somersaulted when I saw it was Rose.

"Would my Lord Knight, the hero of Cirro, favour me with a stroll?" she asked, a teasing smile on her lips.

I managed to nod. On the other hand, some things change greatly.

To my surprise, and probably Rose's, too, after a few awkward moments, our conversation flowed. We talked for hours. Normally, it would be the height of impertinence for a lowborn to monopolise a royal's time, and scandalous for her to be unchaperoned. However, there were additional perks for noblemen saving the realm, however new their nobility.

Evening found us on the castle battlements, her fingers entwined with mine, while Mother Moon bathed in the starlight again, the night silent and still.

As Rose rested her head on my shoulder, a loud wail rent the evening. The grieving cry came from the giant's castle. The castle spies had reported seeing a creature much like the giant but shrouded in black.

Rose snuggled up to me tightly and said, "What if they come back?"

I patted the Silver Shard strapped diagonally across my back and said, "Let them."

About the Author
Adam O'Connell lives alone in a large sprawling castle, like most Englishmen. He is on a first name basis with the Queen and is, in fact, 43rd in line for the throne. His evenings are often spent dreaming of a 'King Ralph' like disaster where he becomes reigning monarch and rules the UK with an iron fist. When he is not thinking of regicide he likes to write stories blending Sci-Fi and fantasy often looking at the darker side of both. His tales are of broken civilisations, lost gods and bitter sweet endings, he is unpopular at dinner parties. You can follow his tweets at @Kiall1982 or find him on Facebook.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link