As I am Way behind on releasing book 4 of the Ranger series I felt a peak at Chapter 1 was a long overdue offering. I hope you enjoy and as always things might change as the book is completed.
Alex Rogers stood in silence as he gazed out over the countryside, his hands resting on the cold stone parapet before him. A cold breeze on his face had begun a reddening of his cheeks and nose. The waist high boundary marked the edge of the balcony just outside of the royal chambers inside Gundor Stronghold, his new home.
At his side, his black wolf Kinsey stood patiently waiting for her owner to show her some attention as he continued to stare out to the west. Looking out over the plain, he let his gaze flow over the snow-filled valley that ran straight to the sea, ending at the distant town of Nyland. A clear spring day allowed that he could just make out the bay that acted as the major seaport for the kingdom he had inherited.
By vanquishing the chosen champion of its former ruler, the Vassal King, Alex was the surprise victor in the contest. The Dark Paladin had been a ringer, a magical creature brought in from another realm by King Avenstore of the Dark Elves and supposedly invincible, or so it was thought.
Alex’s unexpected rise to power came after the former Vassal King, now exiled as part of the conditions of the challenge, exited the kingdom. Raiding the treasury and disbanding its army in the process, the Ailmer had left a wake of chaos and anarchy in his wake. His departure was rumored to lead to the west, directed at the lands beyond the Western Sea.
It was King Ben of Great Vale that had lain the kingdom and title at Alex’s feet, an unexpected reward for the Lord Protector of Windfall and Ben’s chosen champion. Only now, Alex was starting to see that this was no reward at all. Instead, it was just a series of headaches, whose names all began with Lord. For him to make any headway in restoring the kingdom to peace and prosperity, he needed to put a speedy halt to the unrest generated by these many royal wannabes’ and quickly.
The sound of soft movements from behind told Alex he was no longer alone.
“Sire, they have all gathered in the great hall and are awaiting your arrival,” his attendant announced formally as he eyed the wolf cautiously.
Having Kinsey with him provided a sense of comfort, security and companionship not in existence inside these walls since his arrival. The previous resident and his wife had instilled in the castle staff a more formal, stern manner of interaction, one that Alex was uncomfortable with and since his arrival had been trying his best to reverse.
Those remaining here after the departure of their former master had a timid and fearful demeanor, likely their survival mechanism. To reverse the behavior, Alex overcompensated at every turn, providing a calm and friendly reply when possible.
“I will be there shortly, thank you very much,” he answered with words he doubted the man ever heard from Ailmer or his wife.
“Oh, and please see that they are fed in my absence,” he added as he imagined the scene below.
Rebranded the Wizard King of the North, Alex had dispensed with the title of Vassal King, in part because of the inference it made to the Lords he now ruled over. He well understood that the feudal system instilled here had the Vassal Lords beholding to their King, but that system had the subjects of the kingdom first and foremost beholding to their Lord, and not the King.
It was that relationship that was now being held over his head. As he had done in Windfall, for very different reasons he intended to cut out the middle man in this relationship. In this way, he could reverse the roles and assert more pressure on his unruly Lords both from above and from below to bring them in line.
As Ben ruled in the south, Alex intended to extend his power to the people to gain their trust and support, an idea he had not entirely shared with those in the halls below his feet, as it threatened their very way of life. Unfortunately, it was a necessary action taken due to their own power play to strip the authority of the King away entirely during the vacancy here in the castle. Considering the reign of his predecessor, he had some sympathy for their position, however, unless he wanted the kingdom to fall into civil war, he needed to keep that thought to himself.
His thoughts were pushed aside as a speck in the western sky told him it was now time to confront his enemies and establish a new order in the north, one way or another. Descending the stairs from the castle’s upper floors, with Kinsey in tow, he made his way into the great hall, where he had tables brought in with bench seating. Intended to put everyone off their game, the tables were presented perpendicular to the one on the dais specifically for the King and court. He smiled as he scanned the arrangement as it made it harder to present yourself as a challenge to the King with confrontational front row seating.
Waving off his own people, those whose job it was to announce his entrance, he instead strode purposely along one wall, gaining access to the dais alone the back wall and seating himself in the King’s place. The wolf gave one glaring scan of the room before finding a place under the table at his feet, where she could see anyone approaching the table from below.
While none made a move to stand or even announce his presence, the noise level dropped considerably until only a scant few chose to continue their conversation, feigning ignorance to his presence. These select individuals Alex expected to show no respect as they were the ringleaders of the little coup d’etat that was in progress in the north, one specifically intended to remove him from power before he ever got started. In a way, he understood their concerns, but this wasn’t a desire to change the institution, it was a simple power grab to replace him with one of their own.
Unless he was given an opportunity to prove himself, their chosen path was a significant reversal of the unification of the region, one destined to fail. He knew well the history of these same Lords and their ancestors, continuously fighting among themselves until brought to heel under a single King decades before Ailmer.
“My apologies for being late, an unfortunate delay in travel forced me to drag my feet a little,” he said with a smile.
“No worries, my Lord. We are more than content enjoying your fare,” one of the Lords upfront replied, avoiding the proper practice of Sire or Your Majesty.
“Are you expecting more guests? It would appear that anyone of importance is already in attendance,” another of the conspirators observed.
“There are many types of guests. Honored Guests, welcomed guests, and the unwelcome. The last are those that abuse the rules of hospitality and plot to destroy their hosts,” he emphasized.
“Perhaps troops are arriving from the south then,” another offered, insinuating he needed propping up to secure his position.
“None at all, nor are they needed,” Alex replied lightly.
“While it is well known that the King of Great Vale, a relative of yours I believe, has seen fit to lend you a small sum to restore your guard and a tiny force for keeping the peace, it seems that most of the Northern Army rest within the lands of these Lords you see before you?” the ring leader explained.
“One would assume that means the real power behind the throne rests with those same Lords, as you’ve no armsmen of your own to field,” another suggested.
Alex took a slight pause as he considered how to deliver his message. A small laugh escaped his lips, one that plainly confused those before him.
“Like guests, there are many kinds of power, and it comes in various forms. There is economic power, the kind best wielded to manipulate markets, either increasing or reducing one’s prices or even ability to trade. This can be very damaging to those in the more impoverished classes if they are forced to endure, say, a trade embargo due to taxes or poor leadership. Then there is military power, the kind you reference with troops and weapons of destruction, a last resort to be sure. That is the inference here with your insinuations of who commands the most numbers. Finally, there is political power, the kind one sees in use when making alliances, unions that bring benefit to all who participate. Unfortunately for you, I have all three,” he finished to the confusion of the crowd of men.
“I hardly see how an alliance with Great Vale gives you that much power. Their army is already stretched thin between their homes and Windfall, protecting the lands beyond the mountains at our southern border,” the ring leader scoffed.
“I’m not talking about Great Vale,” Alex said as he indicated the huge double doors to the Great Hall.
Turning as one, the visible start that passed through the crowd was truly laughable. Before the assembled Lords, an eye and snout filled the opening as the dragon Vesuvius stared back at them with a steely glare. Disappearing for only a second, but long enough to let loose a shrieking howl that rumbled the structure around them with an accompanying flair of flame, the eye returned to lock their stares once more, a whisp of smoke passing through the opening.
Alex had selected the Great Hall specifically for its close proximity to the main castle doors, excellent acoustics and tall ceiling lest the dragon set the structure aflame.
Designed to carry sound throughout, the dragon’s roar was likely two or three times louder than it would have been outside the castle. He imagined poor Vesuvius’s neck stretched long to make it this far in.
“Some of you might have not met Vesuvius before, but I can promise you some of your men have, the same armsmen you referenced earlier. Once upon a time, they were offered a chance to challenge my friend here or stand down, and you know their decision then. I will now make you the same offer. Publicly back me as your new King and swear your oath of loyalty, one I will bind with magic, or make your case to Vesuvius as to why you should be permitted to pass the doors he guards. I will warn you he has not eaten since his arrival, and I did commit to providing him a good meal,” he said lightly.
At that point, a growl rumbled through the halls, one that telegraphed a hungry dragon. Alex had no idea how to magically bind a man to his oath, but he was hoping those gathered didn’t know that. He watched as the three trouble makers stood all alone as those around them backed away to prevent any false association.
A dragon snort seemed to motivate those frozen in place, with one then another beginning a chant that eventually the entire hall reverberated with, rebels and all.
“Long live the King, long live the King, long live the King.”
A very pregnant Cassandra Rogers, the wife to the Lord Protector of Windfall and newly crowned Wizard King of the North, sat exchanging pleasantries with her cousin, Abrianna, as the two shared a late morning meal together.
“I hate to say it, but I am glad Alex insisted I stay behind while he took care of things in the north,” she confessed between bites.
The small dining area was just off the main kitchen and was more intimate than the main dining room for the keep. Neither party, although raised in the palace in Great Vale, stood on ceremony. As it was this room was used far frequently when Alex was away due to the small numbers being serviced by the kitchen.
“I am as well, though I wish he would have taken Leander up on his offer to go with him for protection. All alone with no one to watch his back must be stressful. At least he has Kinsey,” Abrianna added with a weak smile as she realized she was stressing her cousin.
The fact that Abrianna and Leander were soon to be wed added to the importance of the statement as she hardly wanted to send away her betrothed. Both women knew of the unrest waiting for Alex at Gundor Stronghold and the less than noble Lords behind it. Without support, Alex would be alone facing the hostile reception from all directions.
“You know how stubborn Alex can be, besides Leander could not go because he has been away from the Rangers Guild for far too long, with troubles of his own. Our unplanned trip to Alex’s realm left him in poor standing with the membership, although I hear many forgave because of the manipulations of the Dark Elves,” Cassie replied as she referred to their unplanned banishment to her husband’s earth.
“That is true,” Abrianna agreed.
With that the two sat in silence for several minutes, each deep in thought.
“I hear the Vassal Lords are publicly petitioning to remove the King of the North entirely, an allegiance they claim has brought them nothing but trouble, after they stopped fighting one another that is,” Abrianna disclosed somewhat sarcastically.
“Yes, I got a message bird from Alex yesterday telling me to ignore the rumors. He has everything under control,” she replied.
“One can only hope. Before they were united under one king, the Lords of the north were constantly at one another’s throats in a continuous fight for supremacy over each other. Besides, Ales is not completely alone, he has the twins in Nyland pressing his cause for unity among the locals in town,” Abrianna added.
“Yes, let’s just hope they stay out of trouble while doing so,” Cassie said somberly as she considered her half-sisters ability for causing mischief.
“I can’t thank you enough for coming all this way,” Alex said to Vesuvius as the two sat in the open courtyard after all the Lords and their retainers made a hasty exit. The dragon stayed during the swearing-in ceremony and then gave all the hungry stare as they quickly departed.
“It felt good to stretch my wings. Truth be told, Naga is getting to be a little too domestic of late, suggesting we might consider breeding,” the male dragon scoffed as it swallowed the remainder of the cow Alex provided as promised.
“Ah, didn’t you say that results in volcanic eruptions?” Alex asked, recalling how the dragon got his name.
“Yes, that’s how I have been successfully deflecting the conversation as she is quite fond of her home in the Dragon’s Teeth just the way it is,” he replied with a chuckle.
Alex was very familiar with the lair in the mountain range across the Western Sea. His wife’s mother, Amelia, had been held there at one point, a captive of the evil Tantalus and conspirator with the former resident of this very castle.
“I did mention Gundor Stronghold as an alternative,” the dragon added with a hearty laugh.
“A month ago, I would have encouraged you,” Alex replied with a laugh of his own, the dragon’s lair below his foundations a familiar memory.
“Should I linger?” Vesuvius asked, referring to his return trip.
“No need, you made our point. Besides, Esmerelda has offered to show the flag, so to speak, in case any of the Lords question the terms under which they pledged obedience. She is hardly in your league, I know, but your image lingers in their minds nonetheless,” Alex replied, referring to the small green female dragon that had taken up residence in the mountain range south of Gundor.
Every so often Alex would see her soaring high above the valley, no danger to those far below, just enjoying a freedom hard gained and newly won.
“I think we can remove violent overthrow from my list of concerns. Unfortunately, poison and political chicanery have taken its place at the top of the list,” Alex added with a laugh.
“Then I am off,” the dragon said without a lingering goodbye.
Alex watched as the massive form rose effortlessly into the air. He quickly moved to the edge of the courtyard, scrambling up the steps so that he could watch from the wall as the dragon seemed to pause midflight. Confused at first, a smile crossed his lips as his suspicion proved correct. Turning in midair, Vesuvius seemed to change his mind as he started inland, then dove dramatically, pulling up short and scattering the caravan of some homeward bound Lord and his routine.
“Bet Lord Dip Wad just shit his pants,” he said aloud with a laugh, unsure of which Lord was just emotionally strafed.
Alex smiled as Vesuvius rose once more and headed westward toward Nyland and then on to his home across the sea. Returning to the castle, he found Kinsey brooding as she had been left inside lest she and the dragon find something to disagree over. While his wolf was imposing, she was outclassed by the dragon.
“Good girl,” he praised the wolf, scratching between her ears before retreating to the upstairs office he had created for himself.
Taking the seat behind the large wooden desk, Alex started sorting through the piles of ledgers and papers once more, trying to make sense of it all. To say Ailmer was a poor administrator would be an insult to poor administrators. He had fled the kingdom with the meager treasury, an amount unquestionably adequate to sustain a single household for many years to come, but far short of what the kingdom required to operate.
If the records he found in the kingdom treasurer’s office told an accurate tale, the King had been taxing the Lords a ridiculous sum every year and then squandering the proceeds on luxury imports and expensive indulgences instead of investing in his kingdom. Alex had been told the former King required five wagons just to empty the cellars of cask after cask of imported drink. Ales, wines, ports, and other spirits were stacked high in the wagons as they rumbled off to the coast and a waiting ship.
Even though there had been an equal number of wagons for household goods, King Ailmer’s wife had left behind a substantial amount of fine clothing and personal wear. Alex gained a small idea of what she had taken with her, with the most of the vast closets emptied of their contents. He doubted his own wife had any interest in the remaining attire, much of it gaudy and cumbersome to wear.
Once things calmed with the Lords, he had every intention of turning their Ladies loose in the chambers as a peace offering. Much of what was there appeared unused, all as new as the day they were made and of the finest quality. He figured a happy wife was more valuable than any thank you for at least their tacit support after a history of overtaxing.
In part, that had been why Alex had reached out to Ben for the sums necessary to bring the kingdom under some modicum of control. Hitting up the already rebellious Lords for more taxes after Ailmer had drained their reserves was just like throwing gas on a raging fire. The money would be repaid, although Ben had not asked for such. The King explained he chalked it up against his own security funds, a stable Northern neighbor a good investment.
For now, Alex needed to learn the economics of the region to find means for the survival of his subjects if he hoped to bring stability to the lands.
“What about those four?” Kelby asked Leena as the two stood behind the counter at The Drowning Man in Nyland.
Both mermaids had returned to Nyland of their own accord to assist their new brother-in-law in his efforts in gaining support of the locals. Outfitted in the traditional attire of their profession, both had selected garments that placed their best assets on display. With cleavage aplenty and bare legs peaking from slitted skirts, the twins knew how to influence men.
“They have a look about them,” she replied with a nod as the pair rounded the end of the bar and sauntered over to the men.
The pair had offered to do what they could to help Alex gain control in the north. While not Kelby’s home, it had been Leena’s for many years so there was some additional motivation to help return the kingdom to prosperity. Not exceptionally knowledgeable in the ways of the people there, she did know a lot about soldiers and how to influence them.
“Are you boys’ soldiers? My sister and I have a thing for soldiers,” Leena asked as she and Kelby did their sexiest slink around the table.
“Was in the King’s Guard until the bastard left us high and dry, taking the treasury with him and leaving us penniless,” one of the four acknowledged as he scanned the pair up and down.
“I hear the new King is looking for men?” Kelby offered as she sat in the man’s lap, placing her chest in his face.
“Word is, the Lords are gonna send him packing today,” another of the four replied as he brazenly ogled the pair.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. I hear he is a potent Wizard with many allies,” Leena answered as she worked her fingers into the man’s hair.
“Not sure I fancy working for a Wizard either,” a third man chimed in as he waited his turn for attention.
“Better to be with him than against him, I say,” Kelby offered in return as she patted his cheek.
It was then a thunderous roar shook the building, patrons falling from their seats as the windows rattled in their panes. Leaping from the man’s lap before he tumbled to the floor, Kelby watched the others as they worked to regain their feet. Almost the entire room emptied into the streets, the shops around the Drowning Man experiencing the same as those inside exited to learn the source of the disruption.
“There,” someone shouted as the receding form of Vesuvius was apparent in the western sky.
“Looks like the Lords won’t be dragon their feet in supporting the new King after all,” Leena said aloud, looking smugly at her sister.