An origin story in the Comstock Chronicles
CHAPTER 1 – CONSPIRACY AND LIES
Meheritia, Ballitus; The year 1273
Azroth Phoenix shuffled his twelve-year-old feet down the dusty dirt lane as fast as possible without swinging his arms. Every step made the throbbing on his skin worsen. One thought kept him going as he rushed through startled crowds gathered along the streets at the edge of the city.
“Please let Imogen be home,” he whispered to himself over and over.
He tried to steady his pace, even out his steps, but the feeling of imaginary hot pokers touching his skin made each step longer than the last. Soon, he was sprinting down the lane. If his former governess wasn’t at home, he wasn’t sure what he’d do.
At last, he topped the rise, and Imogen’s sprawling villa came into view. Two young children chased each other around the nut trees near the home, squealing with delight. A ragged gasp of relief escaped his mouth as he rushed up the lane to the white stone home. Imogen stood in the yard with her hands on her hips as she scolded the little ones.
“I’ve told you three to stay out of the mud,” she said in exasperation. “Why can’t you stay clean for once?”
Then her eyes caught on Azroth. Her expression morphed from one of annoyance to concern. The young woman lifted the hem of her dress and jogged toward him, her dirt covered children momentarily forgotten.
From how her brows pinched together and the way her hand covered her mouth, Azroth knew he must look worse than he’d imagined. He’d passed no mirrors as he dashed from the dark confines of the place that should be his home.
Nero’s wrath after his failure today had been harsher than usual. He’d taken hot pokers to Azroth’s arms, leaving blisters along the sensitive inner skin of his forearms to teach him to obey. But there were some lines Azroth refused to cross. This had been one of them. He would not become the man his father was.
“Ross, what happened?” Imogen asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, but another throb of pain wrapped around his arms and he could only choke back his tears. She placed a comforting arm around his shoulders, leading him inside, his eyes now too water-filled to see the path.
“That man is going to kill you before he figures out torture and intimidation won’t get him the results he wants. Did he do this to Zared too?”
Azroth shook his head. His elder brother, Zared, never needed this level of pain to cooperate. Where anger and fear drove his brother to perform better in the tasks set by their father, they made Azroth do worse.
His father’s last words reverberated around his mind. “You will never achieve your full potential as the Protector of this nation if you can’t learn to do as you’re told.”
Hesbron, Imogen’s oldest son, followed them for a few steps before Cerilda, his younger sister, tripped him with a giggle. The boy tore after her again, throwing more mud as he went.
Imogen led Azroth through the atrium and into a side room with a low couch. She set him on it and left to call a servant to fetch a basin with cool water. He wiped his eyes on the fine, sable fabric of his tunic as the gurgle of the fountain in the atrium echoed around the room.
The fear and pain he’d endured that afternoon melted away as he sank back into the couch. If only the sound of the fountain could drown out the dying man’s screams in his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut as another wave of heat raced over the blisters.
“Hold out your arms, Ross,” Imogen said as she reentered the room.
He blinked as his former governess kneeled before him. When she’d first became his governess, she’d tried for weeks to find a nickname that fit, claiming “Azroth” sounded too sharp and formal to use all the time. She called him “Roth” a few times but said it always tasted wrong.
“It sounds like I’m trying to say ‘Ross’ around a mouth full of cotton.” Then she smiled. “Ross. I like that name very much,” and had called him by it ever since.
Gerta, Imogen’s servant, set a bowl of cool water with a rag on the floor. Then the older woman left to round up the children, who dashed by the door looking like the fabled mud monsters of the north.
Imogen took the rag and dipped it in the water before gently applying it to Azroth’s arms. He flinched but did not pull away. Whatever cruelty his father did to him, her touch always made it better.
“What was it today?” she asked as she dabbed the cloth around the red, puckered skin.
“He—” Azroth hiccuped back a sob as the pressure of the rag made the blisters protest in agony. “He wanted me to create a heat trail. They were looking for someone.”
Imogen looked at him, confused. “You know how to do that. You and Wesley have practiced it for weeks. Are they wanting you to become a bloodhound at that wretched castle?”
Azroth hung his head, willing himself not to cry anymore that day.
“Oh, Ross.” Imogen sighed, understanding dawning on her pretty face. “You refused to do it, am I right?”
He nodded slowly. “I didn’t want to help them find the man they were looking for.”
She pursed her lips as she finished cleaning around the blisters. Imogen knew better than to ask him why he’d refused. She’d received her own share of torture at the hand of Nero for involving herself too much when she lived at the castle. Not to mention that if she continued to question him, Azroth might end up revealing the truth as to why he received the burns.
“Your father wouldn’t have to resort to things like this if he’d take the time to see that fear doesn’t work the same on you as it does on Zared. Love can do so much more.” Imogen set the rag down and smeared a salve over the burn marks on his arm.
“He never will.” His voice cracked. “You know what a disgrace he thinks I am. And when he yells at me, I can’t feel the Fire at all. It steals the heat from my hands like an icy wind.”
She didn’t look up as she pressed fresh herbs into the salve.
“He told me today that I’ll never be half the Protector my uncle is. I’m too selfish, hoarding my gift instead of using it for the good of the kingdom.”
Imogen’s lips grew thinner as she wrapped clean linen around his arms. “You will be a better Protector because you will stand up to your brother when he is off course. Love and goodness live in your heart, Ross, and that, more than anything, will serve this country better than hate.”
Though she was mistaken to put faith in his level of courage, her words softened the sting still pricking his heart. Even if he failed as Protector to the kingdom, he’d never fail Imogen. He’d never give into hate and greed the way his father had.
A lock of red hair fell in front of her eyes and Imogen brushed it away before sitting down next to Azroth on the couch.
“Wesley’s spoken to different senators all month searching for any way we can get you away from your father, but no law exists to help us. Besides that, the other senators are too afraid to defy the king openly to help us. They feel if they were to remove you from your role as Protector, the kingdom would crumble. But we haven’t given up hope. There has to be a way for you to do both.”
Azroth sagged as the pain in his arms lessened. It would be at least two weeks before the blisters deflated, and he could use his arms normally again. But through Imogen’s care, he was confident the blisters would heal quicker than normal.
Her arms wound around his small shoulders, holding him the way he wished his mother, Gwenivier, could have. However, his mother had died during the birth of his baby sister, leaving Azroth and Zared in the incapable and merciless hands of their father. Their “punishment,” as Nero put it, for trying to exceed the bounds of magic that dictated there only ever be two children in the royal line at a time.
Red sparks filled his hands as Imogen held him close. Where fear and anger fueled his father and brother’s Fire gifts, kindness and love ignited Azroth’s power. Neither of which he received at his father’s hand.
“Why don’t you show me how you make a heat trail,” Imogen said, planting a kiss on his black hair and wiping away the last of his tears.
It was a distraction, he knew, but it didn’t stop the smile that crept onto Azroth’s face as he leaned into her. This was his safe space. One where nothing could touch him. With a glance at her soft brown eyes, he rubbed his palms together, willing the Fire to dance on his skin. The warmth from the sparks soothed his frayed nerves as the flames trailed along the tops of his fingers. With a flick of his middle finger against his thumb, a little ball of light leaped into the air. He caught it deftly in his palm.
“Now you’re just showing off,” Imogen said, smiling.
He glanced at her with a smirk. He couldn’t resist. To hear her laugh was like the sun coming back after a violent storm.
Rubbing his hands together again, he blew slowly. Sparks flew off his palm like red glitter and alighted on the stone floor. A glowing trail of orange and red flickered where Imogen had kneeled before him. Each spot her foot had touched lit up like a glowing ember, showing the direction her shoe had pointed.
“I say,” a voice from the doorway said. “That’s even better than the last time you and I practiced.”
Imogen and Azroth jumped. They’d been so absorbed in the fire trail, they hadn’t noticed Imogen’s husband, Wesley Galbraith, silhouetted in the door frame. Sunlight washed around the senator’s white and purple robes, signifying him as the junior chairman.
“Wes, you’re home early,” Imogen said, rising from the couch.
He shivered as the arms she’d wrapped around Azroth found their way affectionately around the man in the doorway. Wesley chuckled and rested his forehead on hers, whispering something Azroth couldn’t hear.
He smiled as he watched the couple. It had taken him an entire year to forgive Imogen for leaving the castle, but that all changed once Wesley finally won over Azroth with his gentle nature. So, every day for the past six years, Azroth trekked to Imogen’s villa after his daily lessons, and stayed until either Wesley or a servant took him home.
He produced more heat trails as Imogen and Wesley continued their whispered conversation, catching snippets of “it’s time” and “get ready.”
He brought his hands to his lips and blew again, making a heat trail to show which direction Wesley had entered. The orange footprints weaved into the atrium. Wesley whispered something to Imogen that made her bring a hand to her mouth in shock. She shot an anxious glance at Azroth before returning to her husband and kissed him full on the mouth. Azroth looked away out of respect.
“You’re sure?” she asked.
“Yes,” Wesley said, taking her by the elbows. “Pack what you can and be ready by nightfall.”
They must be traveling to one of the outer cities again, Azroth thought miserably.
They’d left him alone in this city on several occasions, and each instance proved to be a dark period in his young life. The thought of being alone with only Zared and his father for company caused him to shudder.
Wesley released his wife and waved for Azroth to follow him. “Ross, my boy, why don’t you walk with me out to the almond grove? I have some news to share with you.”
Azroth stood and came over to them. Imogen gave him a swift kiss on the cheek before leaving to find her children. Wesley placed a hand on Azroth’s shoulder and steered him outside. The sprawling estate of the Galbraith family glittered like a green jewel in the dry, rolling countryside. It boasted of the largest almond grove in the city, along with olive trees, grapevines, cattle, and sheep. More wealth than anyone except the king.
Wesley’s dark wavy hair stood in stark contrast to his white and purple senator robes. He was early in his career, but had already achieved the title of junior chairman—a high honor.
They wound their way through the almond grove until the villa was out of sight.
“What happened today?” Wesley asked, gesturing at his bandaged arms.
Azroth couldn’t help glancing around himself. Imogen would be furious if she found out he’d lied to her again, even if it was to spare her from the horrifying truth. In halting detail, Azroth related how his father wanted him to use his gift against a thief caught robbing a home.
“They wanted me to take the man’s memories if he didn’t cooperate, and I refused,” Azroth said, holding up his arms. “So they did this to me.”
Wesley peered at him with narrowed eyes. “This wasn’t the story you told Imogen, was it?”
“No,” Azroth said heavily. “I didn’t want to make her worry.”
The senator leaned against the trunk of an almond tree, studying him with a stern expression. Azroth’s small heart quaked beneath the fierce gaze. Was Wesley mad he’d lied to Imogen? He’d thought he was protecting her from the truth.
“Why did they want you to take his memories?” Wesley asked.
Azroth shuddered. “They claimed he was part of a secret group trying to bring down the kingdom.”
Wesley shifted his feet and folded his arms. “It sounds like Nero is growing paranoid. If you oppress people for too long, you risk falling prey to imaginary assassination attempts.”
“I think he’s worried about something. After I refused to take the man’s memories, Zared stepped forward and performed the task.”
“I bet that didn’t end well.”
Azroth shook his head. “It’s not something I want to witness again.”
Wesley stood straight and glanced around. “Let’s keep walking. I want to show you something.”
“What’s that?” Azroth asked, eager to shake the dregs of that day.
He hoped it was something good. Wesley had taught him many things his tutors never even knew.
“Do you remember what I said about how love fuels Fire better than fear?” Wesley asked.
Azroth gave a dark chuckle. “That’s a lesson I live every day, Wes. How could I forget it?”
The senator gave a grim smile. “I just wanted to check, because this will only work so long as you keep that in mind.”
That piqued his interest. “What are you showing me?”
“Have you ever heard of a fire compass?”
“No. What does it do?”
Wesley guided Azroth to an open spot in the orchard, then pulled his dagger from his belt. Flames shot down his arm, and the senator crouched. Drawing in the dirt with the blade’s tip, he made a flaming compass about the size of a dinner plate.
“If you’re ever lost, you can use this compass to point you in the direction you need to go,” Wesley explained. He blew gently on the flames, and an arrow of red light shot out of the circle, pointing northeast.
Azroth leaned closer. “Is that pointing to where you and Imogen are going?”
“Yes.” Wesley’s gaze was far away as he stared at where the arrow pointed.
Azroth’s hands fell slack in disappointment. If Wesley and Imogen were going toward the northern towns, it would be weeks before he saw them again.
“We want you to come with us, Ross,” Wesley said, bringing him back to their conversation.
He gave the senator a curious look. “You want me to travel to the northern towns with you? You know I can’t do that. My father would never allow it.”
Wesley flicked another glance around the grove, then stood. “We’re leaving Ballitus, Ross, and we want you to come with us. We want to get you away from your father for good.”
Azroth’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “You’re leaving Ballitus? Where are you going?”
“Isn’t that where demonic wolves and rock monsters live?” he asked. He wasn’t sure which would be worse. Wolves and monsters or his father.
He stared openmouthed between the smoldering compass and Wesley’s deadly serious face. “You’re serious? You really want me to come?” He didn’t dare hope. He’d dreamed of this ever since Imogen left the castle, but never thought it would really happen.
“Imogen and I want you to become part of our family, but things are stirring in Ballitus that could prevent us from making it a reality. That’s why I need you to leave with Imogen and the children tonight.” Wesley’s eyes scanned the grove for the fourth time, and Azroth wondered what he was looking for.
“But no one leaves Ballitus unless you’re a soldier. Plus, there are many dangerous creatures in the north that could eat us. I’m barely a more than a boy.” He’d never admit it to Wesley, but he was afraid. All he’d ever known was Ballitus.
“Ross, do you remember when I left on that trip north a few months ago?” Wesley asked.
“I was there to assess the need for reinforcements and supplies to help with the growing tension between us and Tellidus. When I crossed the Black Waste and came upon the military camps, I saw something I haven’t seen before.”
“What was it?”
“Sprawling forests and mountains as tall as the sky. The land flowed with green hills and abundant wildlife. It’s not the dry land we know here in the south, but a lush, fertile landscape full of opportunities. That night, I snuck around the military lines and crossed the border.”
Azroth gasped. “How did you get by them? What did you find? Did you see rock monsters?”
The senator chuckled at the barrage of questions. “No monsters. Instead, I found good and honest people who tried to live in peace despite what rumors say here in Ballitus. Their capital city has a library so large that it houses every book in the kingdom. I traveled many days among them and even had an audience with their king.”
“What was he like, and did he know who you were?” Azroth asked. If that king was anything like the king of Ballitus, he wanted to be as far away from that man as possible.
“No, I didn’t reveal my true character. I pretended to be a peasant looking for work. I’ve got us a home and a job the moment we arrive in Solomon. You’ll be so far away from Ballitus, your father will never find you again.”
The senator paused, his eyes fixing on a spot in the distance, before taking hold of Azroth’s shoulders and kneeling before him.
“Ross, will you leave with Imogen tonight? Will you become part of our family?” A fierce light shone in the man’s eye.
He couldn’t stop the tears from filling up his vision. After the couple had welcomed him into their lives these past six years, his heart had yearned for nothing else. He hugged Wesley so tight it was a wonder he didn’t snap the man in two.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be part of your family,” Azroth said into the purple robe. “I’ll make you proud of me.”
Wesley pulled away enough to look into the boy’s face. “I’m already proud of you.”
“You’re truly going to adopt me?” Azroth couldn’t believe that he would get to leave this place, never to be separated from Wesley and Imogen again.
“You will be my son, Ross Galbraith, and no one will ever hurt or use you again. You’ll finally have the home that you should have now.”
Azroth hugged him even tighter, thanking all the gods and powers that ran this world. As he released Wesley, he asked, “Why can’t you come with us tonight?”
“I’m needed in the senate tomorrow for a crucial matter. However, I’ll meet up with you all in two days. We’ll take the long way around the Keykoch Loch and make our way into Tellidus and our new life. I’ve already had the servants prepare a trunk full of clothes and other things you may need.”
Wesley snapped his middle finger and thumb, igniting his fire compass again.
“Now, I want to ensure you know how to create this compass. Imogen will need your help to keep on the right path and care for the little ones. You’re their big brother, after all.”
Azroth swallowed hard, his eyes brimming. If he thought Zared would come with him to Tellidus, he’d ask Wesley. However, he knew his brother was too devoted to his father.
Wesley instructed him in the rough points of making the compass. “Now give it a try. I want to see you do it.”
It took several attempts, but through Wesley’s patient instruction, Azroth got the hang of it. After his last attempt, he asked, “What matter is the senate discussing that is so important? I didn’t think they held a council on the sixth day of the week?”
Wesley gave him a measured stare. “Can I trust you to keep a secret?”
Azroth nodded eagerly. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Wesley and Imogen.
The senator opened his mouth just as a servant came running out into the orchard, waving his arms frantically. “Master Galbraith! Master Galbraith! Soldiers are here!”
Wesley’s attention snapped to the villa, where eight mounted horsemen were riding through the gate.
The note of panic in his voice filled Azroth with a familiar fear. They ran together back to the villa. When they reached the house, the lead guard dismounted and swaggered up to Wesley.
“Master Galbraith, you’re required at the castle immediately,” the guard said.
Azroth wrinkled his nose at the stench of malted barley that wafted toward them on the man’s breath. This guard had been part of his punishment earlier that day, and a flicker of red sparks leaped to Azroth’s fingers at the sight of him.
“Our special council is being held tomorrow. Not tonight,” Wesley said. He gripped Azroth’s shoulder with vice-like fingers.
The guard sneered. “He requires to speak with you directly tonight. Something urgent. He also requested that you bring his son with you.”
Wesley clenched his jaw. “Give me a moment, and I’ll fetch my things,” he said in a tight voice.
The soldier placed a hand on his sword hilt. “Order one of your servants to do that. You aren’t to leave our sight.”
Azroth shot Wesley a worried look. The senator wouldn’t meet his eye.
“Wesley? Wes, what’s going on?” Imogen came out into the courtyard, her red hair streaming out behind her.
Before she reached Wesley, Barley Breath caught hold of Imogen and threw her to the ground. Wesley immediately put up a protective wall of fire that encircled him, Imogen, and Azroth.
“Do not touch my wife again,” Wesley warned as he helped Imogen to her feet.
The guard leered across the blaze. “I can do as I please.” He made for Imogen again, pushing through the fiery ring.
The heat in Azroth’s hands flared out, and he doubled Wesley’s barrier, sending the guard sprawling backward. A snarl issued from the flames. The soldiers’ horses reared as the bristled head of a dragon emerged, snapping at Barley Breath.
The man scrambled away, fear making his unkempt mustache twitch. “When did you learn dragon fire, boy? Last I saw, you couldn’t get the fire to leave your fingertips.”
“Ross, be careful,” Imogen said.
I’d have no problem taking these soldiers’ entire memories, turning them into limp flesh, Azroth thought savagely. His fingers itching to give back the punishments he’d received at many of these soldiers’ hands.
The clop of horse hooves echoed around the courtyard as Wesley’s servant brought his horse forward.
Wesley kissed Imogen. “Tell the children goodnight for me,” he whispered as they broke apart.
Her stricken expression followed them as they approached the horse. Before the senator mounted up, Barley Breath was at his side and clapped a pair of manacles on Wesley’s wrists.
Azroth stared in shock. Had someone told the soldiers that Wesley was going to take Azroth away? In a few moments, he’d gone from elation at the thought of leaving to a sense of dire dread as to what the future would hold now.
“Senator Wesley Galbraith, you are under arrest for conspiracy to murder the King.”
Thank you for reading the first chapter in “The Fire Drake.” This novella will be released one chapter each week until its conclusion. If you want to know when the next chapter is released, please subscribe to this blog.
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